7 Winners, 6 Losers from Broncos' 26-21 Loss to Steelers
In back-to-back weeks to open the 2020 season, the Denver Broncos were stricken by the injury bug and failed to make the crunch-time plays in the closing minutes that spelled the difference between winning and losing. A team might be able to survive one of those calamities but not both — and expect to win.
The Broncos came up short by inches, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-21. As 7.5-point underdogs entering the game, once again, the Broncos beat the spread but couldn't vanquish their opponent despite a golden opportunity to do so when the chips were down.
Starting QB Drew Lock exited the game on the Broncos' second possession, suffering a shoulder injury on a sack/fumble. The initial prognosis isn't encouraging, as Lock is expected to miss 2-6 weeks.
Where do the Broncos go from here? That's a question to be answered another time. For now, we're still picking up the pieces in the aftermath of Week 2's loss.
Collectively, the Broncos overcame the demoralizing loss of Lock, though the team came up short when it mattered most. Individually, who were Denver's biggest winners and losers from Week 2?
Winner: Jeff Driskel | QB
Driskel entered the game in Lock's stead and while the initial returns weren't inspiring, the veteran backup hung in there and proved his mettle. After only managing three points in the first half, the Broncos made a few adjustments and stormed back in the third quarter.
Although the Broncos never led in this game, Driskel brought his unit on the precipice of victory. He showed some rust and he was harrassed all game long (Denver surrendered seven sacks) but he made some excellent throws and got the ball to the Broncos' offensive playmakers.
If you're looking for a moral victory, consider Driskel's performance as one of them. He'll have to not only match it next week with the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccanneers coming to Denver but exceed it.
Driskel finished 18-of-34 for 256 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception but the pick wasn't his fault. It was an on-target throw that went through Courtland Sutton's fingers and into the waiting arms of the Steelers' defense.
All-in, the Broncos have to be encouraged by Driskel but let's see him duplicate the performance with the opponent having some game tape on him in the scheme.
Winner: Noah Fant | TE
Once again, Fant's contributions were a tale of two halves. In Week 2, he inverted the previous game's results, showing out big-time for his team in the second half after being a non-factor in the first two periods.
Fant finished with four receptions on five targets for 57 yards and a touchdown. He also caught the ensuing two-point conversion on his score.
The Broncos would be wise to keep Fant on the field as much as possible. The efforts of any Denver tight end not-named Fant have been impotent to say the least.
Winner: KJ Hamler | WR
After missing the season-opener with a hamstring injury, Hamler made his Broncos debut in Pittsburgh. With Sutton likely not quite back to 100 percent and the offense in need of its playmakers to lift the stopgap QB, Hamler made an impact.
The rookie second-round wideout finished with three receptions on seven targets for 48 yards and chipped in a nine-yard rush. Not bad for his NFL debut and quite confidence-inducing, I'm sure.
Winner: Melvin Gordon | RB
That Steelers' front seven is one of the best in the NFL and it completely shut down New York's Saquon Barkley in Week 1. However, Gordon was able to find a few holes and pick up some big gains, thanks in part to the Broncos' O-line, but also by the sweat of his own brow.
Gordon rushed for 70 yards on 19 carries, which is only a 3.6 YPC average, but again, it was against the stiffest of competition. The biggest play Gordon made, however, came as a receiver, when he caught a 16-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown grab in the fourth quarter. The Broncos wanted some receiving prowess in the backfield and Gordon showed it in Week 2.
Winner: Jerry Juedy | WR
I know, Jeudy dropped another pass over the middle. But he also was a big reason Driskel was able to get into a groove, making a few tough catches and bouncing around to fight for yards after the catch.
The Broncos haven't received a complete game for their first-round pick quite yet but Jeudy has flashed that elite talent. Although quarterback consistency would certainly help him find his groove faster, the Broncos needed a complement to Sutton who could absorb some defensive attention and Jeudy is proving to be just that.
Winner: Mike Purcell | NT
The big nose tackle had another good game. He busted through for the Broncos' only sack of the game and helped limit James Conner and Benny Snell — all the way until the Steelers' final possession when a deflated defense allowed Conner to pick up 59 yards on one rush, which accounted for more than half of his rushing total on the day.
Winner: Justin Simmons | S
Simmons wasn't perfect in Week 2 but he was a heck of a lot better than his 2020 debut. The franchise-tagged safety made a few big plays in Pittsburgh, knifing through for a big tackle for a loss and picking of Ben Roethlisberger to swing some badly-needed momentum Denver's way.
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Loser: Michael Ojemudia | CB
It was a rough day at the office for the rookie cornerback. The Broncos should have anticipated that Big Ben would go after the rookie corners, perhaps working more De'Vante Bausby on the outside, but Vic Fangio mostly stuck with Ojemudia, fellow rookie Essang Bassey, and Bryce Callahan.
Ojemudia dropped an interception in the end zone, was beaten on an 84-yard touchdown by Steelers' wideout Chase Claypool, and relinquished another score in coverage to Diontae Johnson. It was definitely Ojemudia's 'Welcome to the NFL' game. Here's to hoping he can bounce back.
Loser: Elijah Wilkinson | RT
For the second straight game, Wilkinson makes it into the losers column. This time, Wilkinson's foibles led to the catastrophic injury to Lock. Although it wasn't Wilkinson's man who laid the hit that injured Lock, the right tackle got beat quickly off the snap by TJ Watt, which flushed the QB off his point in the pocket and sent him scrambling right. A split second later, Bud Dupree closed in and pulverized Lock into the dirt.
By my count, Wilkinson was responsible for four of the seven sacks the Broncos' O-line relinquished to the Steelers. With proven veteran Demar Dotson languishing on the sideline, what more will it take for O-line coach Mike Munchak and Fangio to realize that Wilkinson is not an NFL starting-caliber right tackle?
Loser: Sam Martin | P
Martin punted just fine on the day. However, it can be argued he cost the Broncos the chance to at least send this one to overtime by dropping a perfectly-placed long-snap in his own end zone, resulting in a safety and two points for the Steelers.
Had those two points not been on the board, Driskel and company would only have needed a field goal to tie on the final possession, instead of pushing for a touchdown. A field goal from the 15-yard line? That's a chip shot for Brandon McManus. The dropped snap was inexcusable, especially in the clutch.
Loser: Brandon McManus | K
McManus went 2-for-3 on field goal tries, hitting from 49 and 28 yards out. But he missed from 58 yards — this from the same kicker who was furious at Fangio when the coach wouldn't allow him a try from 70 yards out. You can argue that Fangio shouldn't have allowed the 58-yard attempt that subsequently led to a short field for Pittsburgh but if McManus is going to campaign for those opportunities, he's got to start hitting them.
McManus has been money from 20-49 yards out. From 50-plus? Over the last two-plus seasons, he's connected on less than 50 percent of his attempts from 50-plus.
Loser: Courtland Sutton | WR
Sutton should be commended for fighting through his injury to be available for his team. But as I wondered in the days leading up, if he wasn't 100 percent, even if he could play through the pain of his shoulder injury, how effective could he be?
Some players, depending on the position, can play through pain and still remain effective. Sutton? The jury's out on how much his pain affected the egregious drop that led to a Joe Haden interception.
In Sutton's defense, he did help the offense before he injured his knee trying to tackle Haden on the interception return. Sutton led the team in receiving yards with 66, hauling in three receptions on six targets. Hopefully, the knee injury isn't serious. We don't yet know the prognosis on his knee but he did not return.
Loser: Pat Shurmur | OC
Shurmur deserves credit for making some brilliant half-time adjustments that allowed the Broncos to put 18 points on the board. It's not easy trying to compensate for the loss of your starting quarterback as a play-caller.
But on the Broncos' final possession in which Driskel drove the offense down to the Steelers' 15-yard line, Shurmur made a couple of questionable play-calls on third and fourth down. On 3rd-&-2, instead of using his prized running back, Shurmur called a pass that fell incomplete, and on 4th-&-2, a free blitzer sacked Driskel, though it's unclear whom the onus falls on for that failure.
Shurmur has been dealt a raw hand thus far, so I want to take it easy on him. He had to play all of Week 1 without his No. 1 receiver and half of that game without one of his Pro Bowl running backs, only to lose his starting QB in Week 2.
Shurmur is still trying to find his groove and acclimate to this new collection of talent in Denver. But in critical moments, in two straight games (including the botched four-minute offense in Week 1), the offensive coordinator's design has left the Broncos wanting.