Had it all gone right for the Steelers, Fitzgerald Toussaint wouldn’t have fumbled away a promising drive with ten minutes left, leading to the Broncos’ go-ahead and ultimately winning score. Of course, had it all gone right for the Steelers, Toussaint wouldn’t have been in there.
Toussaint was signed to the practice squad after spending camp with the Ravens, and ascended to the 53-man roster upon the injury to star RB Le’Veon Bell. Down the stretch he outplayed Jordan Todman to earn the second-string job, and when DeAngelo Williams went down in Week 17, Toussaint found himself, after just 26 career NFL carries, the Steelers’ playoff running back.
It must have felt like a fairy tale to that point. Toussaint had put up 118 all-purpose yards against Cincinnati the week before, and he was responsible for yesterday’s game’s only touchdown through three-plus quarters. Pittsburgh was driving in Denver territory with 10 minutes left, looking to extend their lead, and Toussaint took the handoff left, finding a nice big hole occupied only by safety T.J. Ward. Toussaint probably could have dropped his shoulders and gone at Ward and picked up the first down, but he decided to cut left where it looked like Darrius Heyward-Bey had Bradley Roby locked up. Roby fought partially around Heyward-Bey and punched the ball loose:
Toussaint sat at his locker, in full uniform, for a long, long time after the final whistle. He took questions, but the only answer was as obvious as it was unsatisfying.
“I’ve got to protect the ball,” Toussaint said in a voice that was barely a whisper. “There’s no excuse for that.”
This was one of the best Steelers teams in years, and it was undone by injuries. Bell, Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, Antonio Brown. It seemed like it’d be a death by a thousand cuts, rather than one mortal gash, especially as the run game struggled to get anything going and the loss of Brown was felt every time Markus Wheaton muffed a punt. And it was all of those things as well, but unfortunately for Toussaint, when you’re responsible for the game’s only turnover, and the winning drive follows immediately, people are going to remember your fumble.
As soon as Toussaint finished his interviews, Mike Tomlin headed over to give him a big hug. Art Rooney shook hands with every player, and spent extra time with Toussaint. He was consoled by DeAngelo Williams and Ben Roethlisberger, and Roethlisberger offered what passed for a pep talk.
“I told him to take ownership of it — but not all of it,” Roethlisberger said of his two-minute message in Toussaint’s ear. “We wouldn’t have been here without what he did last week. He made a mistake today. It hurt. But we all made mistakes. It’s on all of us.”
It’s a disappointing end to the season for the Steelers, who when healthy boasted one of the all-time great offenses, went into the divisional round missing the NFL’s best receiver and one of its best running backs, and still could have come away with a win. That’s how attrition gets you, though—it doesn’t make games unwinnable; it reduces the margin of error to near zero. It only took one mistake.