It seemed just about everybody was picking the Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 50. So for that reason I liked the Broncos, but only against the spread. I couldn't get past how they barely beat two teams who offense's were limited by multiple injuries. Still, great defense is the ultimate neutralizer. And for that reason I felt the game would go down to the wire.
When the game was over, it kind of had the same feeling the next day as I did when I watched "The Red Wedding" episode on the HBO show Game of Thrones. I was thinking how did I not see that coming?
I was convinced Denver was going to win that game after the special teams mistake that resulted in a long punt return. One team was making mistakes you don't normally see while the other was playing for something beyond personal triumph. It often had me thinking about Super Bowl XL. Bad penalties, taking a beatdown on special teams, missed field goals off the uprights were all reminders of that game. Of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense didn't dominate the Seattle Seahawks defensively the way the Broncos did the Panthers, but the Steelers still held the Seahawks to the same 10 points.
Like the Steelers with Jerome Bettis 10 years ago, there was no way the Broncos were going to let Peyton Manning (and to a certain extent Demarcus Ware) lose that game. And I should have seen that coming as much as I should've seen that it was a bad matchup for Carolina. Most of Carolina's pass plays take a long time to develop. That's bad news against a team that has not only the best pass-rushers in the league, but also the best set of corners.
But there was something to be learned from the Broncos' championship run, for which I give John Elway a lot of credit. Two years prior, the Broncos and their high-powered offense took a 43-8 beatdown in the Super Bowl against what was at the time the league's best defense. What Elway learned from that game was that he needed to prioritize the defense in order to win it all. He signed Aqib Talib, Ware, and T.J. Ward to big-money deals. Despite having two of the top ten corners in the league in Talib and Chris Harris, Elway selected Bradley Roby in the first round in 2014. In 2015, he drafted Shane Ray to ensure fresh pass-rushers today and a future tomorrow at the critical outside linebacker position. Elway built the defense in the ideal circular fashion.
After Ryan Shazier was drafted in 2014, I wrote that while I liked the pick, I thought that inside linebacker was the last position you needed to build with high draft picks on defense. That a defense should be built like a circle, not necessarily from front to back. That front-four talent and depth combined with very good corners is the way to go, along with safeties that can cover ground and come up and fill the run game. From there, you can find instinctive inside linebackers who can tackle in the later rounds. Danny Trevathan was a sixth-round draft pick. Brandon Marshall was a fifth-round pick who was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars and made his way to the Broncos starting lineup from the practice squad. And no that doesn't mean I don't love the Shazier pick. I wouldn't change it. And with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers are an example of how there are many ways to skin a cat. There's just an ideal way to build a defense, and I believe Elway constructed it.
The Broncos looked to be in their nickel defense as often as the Steelers when I watched their post-season games. Yet, despite having similarly sized outside linebackers and two starting defensive ends that have nearly identical height-weight ratios to Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Broncos' run defense was dominant in comparison to the good but inconsistent Steelers. The primary reason for that is the Broncos ability to consistently play man defense and more often put an extra defender in the box. Having three lockdown corners can do more for a defense that just limit a passing game.
Yes Von Miller is a freak, but both of his sacks that led to fumbles were plays in which Cam Newton did not get the ball out in timing. That half second of hesitation is sometimes all it takes between a win and a loss. Maybe the hit Will Allen had on Manning in the playoffs turns into a fumble for a touchdown instead of the ball popping up and laterally out of bounds. Granted, that play looked like a hot read on a blitz, but far too often it seems quarterbacks are getting the ball out in rhythm against the Steelers. Regular-season losses against the Ravens and Seahawks were in large part due to third-and-long passes that came out of the quarterbacks' hands in rhythm.
Art Rooney II expressed that the primary focus this offseason is to improve the secondary. I hope that's case. It has to begin with the cornerback position. But I don't think it's something that should be counted on in the draft. As of now (and it's early), there seems to be national consensus on Eli Apple being the fourth-rated corner in the draft. But even if he's available at pick 25, I don't feel great about a rookie corner who doesn't seem to enjoy tackling based on the videos I've reviewed -- and who may have left school too early -- turning the Steelers into a top-five pass defense.
The Steelers have never made it to a Super Bowl in which they didn't have a number one corner who was at least 6 feet 1. With the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger's career, it's time to make that free-agent splash. Trumaine Johnson seems to be the ideal fit. With seven interceptions last season for the St. Louis Rams, Johnson is 6-2 and still only 26 years old. I kind of like the idea of signing Johnson and drafting 6-2 Darian Thompson to play safety. With Thompson's 19 career interceptions at Boise State, Johnson's obvious ball skills and the hopeful return of Senquez Golson, I'd really like the turnover creating potential of that secondary. Adding two athletic 6-2 guys to the secondary shrinks throwing windows that increases the odds of quarterbacks holding onto the ball longer and letting the pass rush get home to create more fumbles and tipped passes.
Of course, that doesn't come without cost. With the play of Alejandro Villanueva and the return of Maurkice Pouncey, I'd have to be willing to let Kelvin Beachum and Ramon Foster walk to make the Johnson signing happen. I expect Johnson to earn at least $45 million over five years. So the two offensive linemen and maybe a defensive role player in Steve McLendon will have to be let go in free agency to make it happen. But the Steelers need a No. 1 cornerback. Adding depth on the defensive line early in the draft, along with safety and guard, along with some free-agent re-signings, should have this team in position on paper.
Embracing game management on the offensive side of the ball is the other matter. Elway knows well how important it is to protect a quarterback who's getting up there in age. Who better to do it with than the best running back in the league who also happens to never fumble? Fans and media for years now have being saying the days of the game manager are dead. Well heck, Manning couldn't even pull off managing the Super Bowl without two turnovers and the wind knocking him over for sacks, yet he still won the big game. The Steelers have too much talent on offense to not be cognizant of protecting the ball. It's part of the reason why they can beat the Broncos and lose twice to the Ravens. It's part of the reason why they can come within a play or two of being in the AFC championship and a play or two by the New York Jets of missing the playoffs entirely. That and their mediocre secondary.