In a game the Broncos could have easily given up, they fought back and had a chance to win down the stretch. It seemed like nothing went right from the start for Denver in their week two matchup vs the Pittsburgh Steelers as they fall to 0-2. As injuries once again highlight our weekly Broncos recap and review, let’s jump right in.
There was optimism at the beginning of the day as Courtland Sutton was upgraded to active after a shoulder injury kept him out of the season opener. On the first play of the game Drew Lock found Sutton for a 20 yard gain on a back shoulder throw and all seemed right in the world. Unfortunately that would be Lock’s only completion for the day and the drive would end in a punt.
On the Broncos next drive, quarterback Drew Lock tried to escape the never-ending pressure from the Steelers (who finished with seven sacks), and was awkwardly taken down by Bud Dupree. Lock not only fumbled the ball away, but was also very slow to get up garnering a collective gasp from Broncos Country. That play ended Lock’s day as he wouldn’t return after a shoulder injury to his throwing arm.
The Steelers took advantage of the turnover and James Conner barreled into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead. With Lock in agony on the sideline, backup QB Jeff Driskel had to step in. After trading punts with the Steelers, the Broncos finally got on the scoreboard with a 49 yard field goal kick from Brandon McManus.
In the middle of the second quarter it took Ben Roethlisberger just one play to go up 14-3 on the Broncos. Big Ben connected with rookie Chase Claypool down the sideline for a 84 yard touchdown. Claypool fended off Broncos rookie CB Michael Ojemudia, who should have had an easy interception in the red-zone earlier. Ojemudia was looking for a flag instead of trying to tackle Claypool as the former Notre Dame WR turned on the jets and took it to the house.
The Broncos ended their next three possessions in the first half with a missed 58 yard field goal, an interception, and a punt. I was surprised to see McManus trot onto the field instead of punter Sam Martin, especially at windy Heinz Field, and he pushed it the right. The interception will go on Driskel, but it wasn’t his fault. He hit Sutton right in the hands on a slant, but Sutton deflected the ball and it landed right in Joe Haden’s hands. Going into halftime the Broncos were down 17-3 and things didn’t look good.
However, Justin Simmons picked off Roethlisberger to start the second half, which led to a 28 yard chip shot for McManus. While it was nice getting points, the Broncos didn’t capitalize after a 1st and goal from the four yard line.
After the Steelers failed to convert on fourth down, the Broncos drove 65 yards and made it a three point game. Noah Fant, who had a great game in week one, caught a 20 yard touchdown pass from Driskel and the two point conversion to make it 17-14.
While the Broncos had the momentum, the Steelers quickly responded on the next two possessions. After the Fant touchdown, the Steelers put together a 9 play drive ending with a signature Big Ben touchdown. The Miami (OH) alum escaped pressure and found Dionte Johnson in the endzone. Just a handful of plays later, the Steelers forced a safety and were quickly up 26-14.
The Broncos still had some fight in them though. Shelby Harris forced a Benny Snell fumble, which eventually resulted in a 16 yard touchdown pass from Driskel to Melvin Gordon III making it a 26-21 game. The Broncos defense forced a quick three and out to give Denver the ball with 6:08 remaining down five.
Driskel put together a solid 11 play drive and had Denver in the red-zone, but the offense stalled and Pittsburgh came away with the win. The Broncos couldn’t gain two yards to convert a first down and turned the ball over on downs. On the fourth down play, the Steelers blitzed, which should have been expected, but Driskel couldn’t get the ball out of his hands and the game fittingly ended with a Pittsburg sack.
The Broncos now fall to 0-2 and will host Tom Brady and the Buccaneers next week. The Steelers improved to 2-0 and will have a Watt family reunion next week when they welcome the Houston Texans.
As we’ll do every week, here are my 10 biggest takeaways from the Broncos game
Injuries Still Suck:
If you read my recap and review last week, you may have noticed a theme: injuries suck. Well, unfortunately, that theme will continue for the Denver Broncos in 2020. It has now been confirmed that Drew Lock will miss some time with a shoulder injury. It was originally diagnosed as an AC joint sprain, but after MRIs were done Monday it appears to be a rotator cuff strain. The second year QB will miss the next two weeks and then be reevaluated; he’ll likely be out 2-6 weeks according to most reports. Then came the Courtland Sutton injury. The third year WR toughed out a shoulder injury to even be active, but then “tore up his knee” according to Mike Klis of 9news. Sutton will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and a torn MCL. The injuries kept piling up too. Dre’Mont Jones, another young player with high expectations this year, will miss at least four weeks after suffering a PCL strain. Demarcus Walker, a fellow defensive lineman with Jones, will be out multiple weeks with a calf injury. Last but not least, cornerback Davonte Harris will miss one or two weeks with a hamstring issue. These players join Von Miller, Philip Lindsay, and A.J. Bouye on the long list of injured Broncos. Not only are there a lot of injuries, but these are critical playmakers for this team. Sutton, Lindsay, Miller, Bouye are all former Pro Bowlers, while Lock and Jones are key building blocks for the future. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, injuries suck.
This Team Has Heart:
The Broncos could have waved the white flag, blamed their terrible injury luck, and moved on to next week. However, they never quit in this game. With all of the odds stacked against them, they gave themselves a fighting chance to win this game. Recent Bronco teams wouldn’t have given the same level of energy or heart that this team did on Sunday, and that is the biggest silver lining in my opinion. It’s refreshing to see the team playing for their coach and playing for each other when nothing is going right. If this attitude remains for the rest of the season, I think the Broncos may steal a couple of victories even with the injuries.
Jeff Driskel Played Pretty Well, But Isn’t Our Savior:
That was not an ideal situation for Jeff Driskel to step into, but I think he handled himself quite well. Not only did he have to come into a game against a top rated defense last year, but he had to work without key weapons on the offensive side. The former Florida Gator finished the game 18/34 with 256 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception, which wasn’t his fault. There were certainly some issues though. The 27 year old held onto the ball way too long and was a little too locked in on his first read at times. Driskel isn’t our saving grace and the Broncos will need to weather the storm with him as the starter. However, there were some great passes in big moments that impressed me, the Gordon touchdown pass stands. Most importantly, he gave the Broncos a fighting chance to win. Overall Driskel played admirably but will need to clean some mistakes as he now becomes QB1 for the Denver Broncos.
Defense Played Relatively Well Minus A Few Big Plays:
The defense had a tough task of slowing down this Big Ben led offense. While it was far from a perfect game, they played pretty well in this one. Of course the big 84 yard touchdown is a black eye on the game, but they limited the Steelers and gave the offense a chance in the second half with some timely turnovers. Remember the cornerbacks are both rookies and are going to have to learn on the fly, something Michael Ojemudia learned the hard way. Until the final drive and a 59 yard rush, James Conner was contained for most of this game. The defense is going to need to continue above expectations if the Broncos want to win, that being said there is still room for improvement.
The Defense Needs To Create More Pressure:
Speaking of that defensive improvement, The Broncos gave Big Ben way too much time this week. We knew that it was going to be a struggle to generate a pass rush without Von Miller, but Big Ben could have watched “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in the pocket on Sunday. The Steelers were without their two starting guards and only gave up one sack, when Mike Purcell blew past the left guard. Bradley Chubb is still working up to 100%, but increased his snap count Sunday. Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attachou both need to find a way to turn up the heat and help Chubb on the outside. I also hope to see Jurrell Casey generate more pressure from the inside.
KJ Hamler Impresses in Debut:
We got our first look at the Broncos second round pick KJ Hamler in this game. While his role was somewhat limited, he did a lot of good things in his first NFL game. The Penn State product was touted for being a speedster, but I was impressed with his route running. He ran a beautiful out route which generated nice separation and gave us a glimpse at his potential. The rookie also had a nice end-around rush for about nine yards early in the game. Without Sutton, Hamler will need to step up in this offense. All signs point to rookies Hamler and Jeudy being the starters moving forward.
The Offensive Line Struggled:
The Steelers had seven sacks and 19 QB hits(!) in this game. I know that the Steelers have arguably the best front seven in football, but it was still a blood bath this week. Everyone along the offensive line seemed to struggle in this one. Dalton Risner was infuriated with their performance and said, “We have to do better as an offensive line and not let that happen” after the game. While the Broncos did rush for over 100 yards and averaged four yards per carry, the offensive line has a lot of work to do next week. I wouldn’t mind seeing Demar Dotson get some reps at right tackle over Elijah Wilkinson with the first teamers this week.
Noah Fant Continues To Be a Mismatch:
I would make the case that Noah Fant is our best offensive weapon right now. I know that Jeudy and Hamler have higher ceilings, but they aren’t ready to carry the offensive production right now. Fant continues to be a matchup nightmare for other teams. He finished this game with four receptions, 57 yards, and one touchdown, but didn’t get it going until the second half. As you may recall from last week, he had a big impact in the early last week but then wasn’t targeted in the second half. The Iowa product needs to be a focal point in this offense for an entire game, and will only help Driskel moving forward.
Special Teams Had a Rough Day:
I was raving about punter Sam Martin last week, but this week the special teams as a whole struggled. McManus missed a field goal, albeit it was a long 58 yard attempt that probably shouldn’t have been kicked. The safety came after a dropped snap by Martin which hit him right in the hands. However, worst of all was the coverage on punts and kickoffs. Dionte Johnson broke countless tackles and set up the Steelers with good field position consistently.
Things Don’t Get Any Easier Moving Forward:
There is no time to mope in the NFL. The Broncos need to focus on next week when Tom Brady and the Buccaneers come to town. They’ll need a lot of role players to step up and contribute if they want a chance to win. After Brady leaves town, a short week with a Thursday night matchup at the Jets is on the horizon. I’m very curious to see the message Vic Fangio has to the team and how they will respond after all of this. This team can’t afford to start the season 0-4 like last year.