DENVER –Three observations from the Broncos’ 29-23 overtime stunner over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High here on Sunday:
1. THE PASS.
Just as more than a few writers and fans were tweeting about how this was the Broncos’ first overtime game since “The Drive” in Cleveland (which, by the way, hits its 25th anniversary on Wednesday), Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was stiff-arming past Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, sprinting up the right sideline and into the end zone with an 80-yard touchdown that was the most stunning, electrifying score in the 11-season history of the Broncos’ home stadium.
“We were on the sideline and talking about it before we even went out there on the field and we were like, ‘We are going to run this play and all you have to do is beat the corner,’” said Thomas. “They said, ‘All you have to do is cross the safety’s face and I was walking to the line and saw the safety come down and I knew, at that time, the play that we had called, the only person I had to beat was the corner (Taylor). I crossed his face and I knew the middle of the field was wide open.”
Added running back Willis McGahee: “I was just saying, ‘Man trust your speed. Trust your speed. Don’t cut back. Don’t cut back.’ And he kept it straight. He outran the guy.”
The Steelers’ defense was fooled — which was surprising given that the Tebow-to-Thomas passes were the one aspect of the Broncos’ offensive game that made overtime possible. The first connection, a 58-yard pass on the second play of the second quarter, reversed momentum and set up Eddie Royal’s 30-yard touchdown catch. The second one, a 51-yarder, set up Tim Tebow’s touchdown run.
Denver doesn’t find the end zone without the Tebow-to-Thomas collaboration, which exploited a mismatch between the 229-pound receiver and the 195-pound cornerback. Yet the Steelers were nevertheless caught off-guard when Tebow went into play-action.
“We had a good run fake up front becasue their guys sucked up a little bit,” Broncos tight end Dante Rosario said.
“A lot of guys were committed to the run; they were running the ball kind of well. I know I bit on the run fake,” added Steelers linebacker James Farrior. ” I don’t know what everybody else was doing. It was a good call by them. We just didn’t make the play.”
Added Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, who sat out because of sickle-cell trait: “They went the opposite of what they do. We’re thinking, ‘They’re going to do this,’ and they hit us.”
And the stadium erupted in a way it hadn’t experienced in six years.
“I almost caught (Thomas) because I ran right behind him,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “I got down there and a bunch of cameras were down there with him and I just moved them out of the way.”
The only constraint on the celebration was the new overtime rules. Some Broncos were unsure that the game was over, but since the Broncos scored a touchdown — not a field goal — the Steelers were condemned to a sudden death.
“I did not know,” safety Quinton Carter said. “I’m sitting on the bench keeping my legs warm, and I’m thinking, ‘Why is everybody running on the field?’ I jumped up on the bench and started celebrating after I put two and two together.”
It added up to the Broncos’ greatest moment this century.
2. THERE’S THE PASS RUSH.
The dam began to break early, when Robert Ayers hit Ben Roethlisberger as he threw. It cracked further in the second quarter, when Ayers poured over Steelers left tackle Max Starks for a nine-yard sack that put them in third-and-16 at the Pittsburgh 14, from which point Roethlisberger threw a hurried pass that Carter intercepted at the Steelers 27.
In the final two minutes, it broke entirely as the Broncos poured through for three sacks of the quarterback — one each by Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers. Miller’s sack was his first since Week 14, and also his first since changing casts to one that left the four fingers on his right hand free while protecting his thumb and forearm.
We saw Sunday what increased confidence and positive results could do for Tebow. Perhaps next Saturday we’ll see what it does for Miller, who was much more disruptive Sunday than he had been since Week 14.
Let’s not get carried away here. The Broncos aren’t suddenly a passing team. They only threw 21 times on Sunday, and Tebow completed less than 50 percent of his throws. But given the high percentage of passes that went deep downfield, completion percentage was the wrong metric with which to measure the second-year quarterback.
Instead, look at his average yardage per attempt: an NFL-playoff record 15.04 yards (for quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts), breaking the 32-year-old record established by Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl XIV. The deep completions to Thomas — and 30- and 40-yard passes to Royal and Daniel Fells, respectively — pushed his average per completion to a staggering 31.6 yards.
Even when he kept the football on the ground — he gained 50 yards on 10 carries — Tebow displayed the confidence, élan and swagger that made possible his comebacks from Weeks 7-14 but seemed to dissipate during the Broncos’ three-game losing streak. The reset button was mashed, and Tebow displayed the same inexplicable, unquantifiable qualities that helped him seize the starting quarterback job in the first place.
Tebow “pulled the trigger,” as John Elway suggested, and the Steelers were shot down.
“I feel like he came out and played confident, and it think that’s what John was trying to tell him,” said Royal. “Play the way you know how to play and Tim did that. he was smart with the ball and really led this offense today.”
Added McGahee: “It’s just like I told NFL Network: ‘I’m going to ride with ‘One-Five.’”