Broncos Fall to Steelers 26-21: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
The Denver Broncos can't seem to catch a break, or even a reprieve from the injury bug. These first two weeks of the season call to mind the old Albert King blues song Born Under a Bad Sign.
'If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.'
Indeed, the Broncos' 2020 season has seemingly been born under a bad sign which means that Vic Fangio in company, if they're going to salvage their campaign, are going to have to make their own luck.
The Broncos fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-21, losing starting quarterback Drew Lock on the second offensive possession of the game. Lock is expected to miss 2-6 weeks with a shoulder injury. He'll have an MRI on Monday when back in Denver.
The Broncos battled and came within inches of upsetting the 7.5-point favorite Steelers but once again, Fangio's squad died the death of a thousand inches. It wasn't all bad, though, as the Broncos likely had no business having a shot at winning this game without Lock, Von Miller, A.J. Bouye, and Phillip Lindsay.
This team showed big heart in defeat. There was some good, some bad, and a whole lot of ugly. Let's focus on the good to start.
Offensive Skill-Position Players Step Up
Backup QB Jeff Driskel played admirably and showed some grit but he received a Herculean contribution from his supporting cast. Courtland Sutton, who was a game-time decision and played hurt, chipped in with a few big catches, while rookie wideouts Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler helped take a lot of pressure off of the beleaguered stop-gap QB.
Tight end Noah Fant proved once again that he demands the ball when he's on the field, posting a huge second half and finding the end zone for the second straight week. Prized free-agent signing Melvin Gordon ran hard with Lindsay sidelined, totaling 84 scrimmage yards and a nice over-the-shoulder touchdown grab against arguably the stoutest front seven in football.
With a lesser supporting cast, it's hard to believe Driskel could throw for 250-plus yards and a pair of touchdowns in relief of the starter. Credit to those young playmakers.
Driskel Steps Up
It's unfortunate that it didn't result in a win, but Driskel played surprisingly good in relief of Lock. Driskel joined John McCormick (at Buf., 12/18/66) as the only two quarterbacks in team history to throw for at least 250 yards and multiple touchdowns in a game they didn’t start.
Driskel finished 18-of-34 passes (52.9%) for 256 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (84.9 rating). The pick wasn't his fault.
Here's to hoping Driskel can sustain that level of play next week against a Tampa Bay squad that will have two games' worth of tape on Pat Shurmur's offense in Denver and one on Driskel.
Fangio's Defense Keeps it Manageable
There were a few faux pas on the part of the Broncos' defense, which we'll get to shortly, but as a collective, Fangio's defense played its heart out. The unit bottled up the Steelers' rushing attack (outside of garbage time), took the ball away twice, and forced a turnover on downs in a key moment of the game.
The signature accomplishment for the Broncos' defense, though, was how they smothered the Steelers on third down. Ben Roethlisberger and company were held to 2-for-17, allowing just a 17 percent conversion rate. That alone allowed the Broncos' offense its foibles as it struggled initially to rebound from the loss of Lock.
Credit to Fangio and company.
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Making his first NFL start, Ojemudia fell victim to the predations of a veteran QB. Roethlisberger knew exactly the personnel limitations of the Broncos' secondary — namely, the two rookie cornerbacks — and went after Ojemudia with a vengeance.
Ojemudia gave up two touchdowns, including an 84-yard dagger by Chase Claypool a 28-yarder to Diontae Johnson. Adding insult to injury, the rookie squandered his opportunity to exact a small measure of revenge on Roethlisberger by dropping a sure-fire interception in the end zone.
Ojemudia's trial-by-fire won't relent any time soon, as he draws another future Hall-of-Fame QB next week in Tom Brady.
The Broncos' have really been stricken by two viruses. First, the team has tussled with the injury bug while also coming down with a bad case of the 'dropsies.'
I counted two dropped passes in Week 2 but there was one additional Jerry Jeudy play that could be classified as such upon further review. For sure, Jeudy dropped one over the middle and Sutton did as well, but in his case, it tipped up into the air and was picked off.
Get the Broncos some football penecilin so that they can kick these nasty bugs weighing them down.
Broncos' O-Line — Especially Wilkinson
Look, we knew the Broncos would be assailed in Pittsburgh going against that ferocious front seven but countless QB hits and seven sacks later, it turned out worse than I imagined it would.
Wilkinson alone gave up four of those seven sacks (four!) and shares the blame for the pressure that led to Lock's injury. The Broncos have to look long and hard at sitting Wilkinson down and giving Demar Dotson, a career-long right tackle and a starter at the position for the previous eight season, a chance.
It can't get anyworse than what we've seen from Wilkinson? When you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, that's when action should be sparked.
The Broncos' O-line deserves some credit for picking up 104 rushing yards against a Steelers' defense that surrendered just 29 yards the week prior, holding the Giants' running back Saquon Barkley to just six yards on 15 carries.
But this O-line had no answer for the Steelers' pass rush, which disrupted the offensive game-plan every which way. Six different Steelers got in on the seven-sack action. It was a who's-who party in the Broncos' backfield for Mike Tomlin's squad.
Just when it felt safe to hope that Tom McMahon's unit would begin to factor into a win, the Broncos' special teams dashed them with an ugly performance. Not only did McMahon's coverage teams give up 112 yards against Pittsburgh's punt and kick returns, the specialists came up small, too.
Brandon McManus' bad streak from 50-plus yards continued as he missed a 58-yarder, which gave the Steelers a short field but thankfully, Fangio's defense bailed him out with a stop.
Adding insult to injury, after a great day punting, Sam Martin dropped a perfect long-snap backed up in his own end zone, which led to a fourth-quarter safety. Those two points made the difference in the clutch, as it forced Driskel and company to press for a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal in Steelers' territory in the closing minutes (five-point margin).
It's next-to-impossible to win when a special teams unit literally plays poorly in coverage, in field goals, and in the turnover department. Do better, McMahon.