The Denver Broncos had to take to the road for the second consecutive year to battle the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returned from his concussion while Ben Roethlisberger competed despite having a banged-up hip and pectoral muscle.
Mike Tomlin and Vic Fangio squared off for just the second time of their respective careers as head coaches in the NFL in front of a packed house of ‘Terrible Towels.’ Denver will play the entire AFC North this season and have now lost two of those games after succumbing to the Steelers 27-19.
The Broncos were bullied by the Steelers on Sunday, relinquishing their second-straight loss of the season and dropping to a 3-2 record in an uber-competitive AFC West.
What did we learn from Sunday's painful loss? Let’s review three key takeaways from Week 5’s matchup.
Kyle Fuller Becoming a Liability
Previous NFL relationships often yield winning results between players and coaches. But the Fuller-Fangio reunion in Denver has yet to impress the masses in Broncos Country.
GM George Paton inked the former Chicago Bears defensive back to a one-year $9.5 million contract last spring. At the time, the move was seen as a home run for a Fangio secondary that was bewildered and depleted in 2020.
But time and time again, opposing offenses have attacked Fuller on the first offensive series to repeated success. It happened in Weeks 1 and 2 and again On Sunday vs. the Steelers.
On the very first offensive series, Roethlisberger exploited Fuller on a 50-yard touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson. While the 29-year-old Fuller had solid positioning with Johnson, he desperately dived at the receiver to stop the big play in a scene that has become all too familiar.
Rookie CB Pat Surtain II was moved to cover Johnson after Fuller gave up the longest scoring play allowed this season by the Broncos. With good reason, as both Johnson and Steelers WR Chase Claypool pose a dynamic deep threat for Big Ben.
Sure, defensive backs are going to get beat at times, and maybe it's true that because corners are so often on an island, it’s easier to notice mistakes. But when is the Fuller acquisition going to pay dividends for the Broncos?
Don’t get me wrong, Fuller is an excellent tackler for Denver’s defense and has recorded 15 tackles this season. But his coverage has been average and relinquishing big plays early is something teams are obviously game-planning for vs. the Broncos.
We just haven’t seen the former All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler that shined previously under Fangio in Chicago. The Bryce Callahan acquisition has paid better dividends for this team (when healthy). Knock on wood.
Through the first four games, Fuller had two pass break-ups despite playing 233 defensive snaps as the starting corner. Against the Steelers, he recorded just one tackle and zero passes defended while giving up that big score and being penalized.
Needless to say, it’s time for Fuller to make do on his end of that highly-priced one-year rental deal he was awarded. Better late than never is the hope.
It’s hard to garner a lot of love when you’re playing on the defensive line in the NFL especially if the statistical production isn't stacking up but Dre’Mont Jones has been one of the most consistent players on Fangio’s defense. Jones' name may not pop up on the box score or in any major statistical categories but the film reveals an unselfish and chaotic defender. No. 93 is usually one of the first players off the snap on the line of scrimmage.
Jones was selected by Denver in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft and the investment is starting to pay off for the franchise. If you’re not breaking down the game film or charting the plays, you might be scratching your head on figuring out where Jones is truly making an impact.
Ex-Bronco Derek Wolfe used to play a similar role during the team's championship run. The results saw pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware raise hell for opposing quarterbacks while Wolfe and fellow ex-Bronco Malik Jackson consistently fought double teams to free up their teammates.
Against the Steelers, Jones played strong at the point of attack. He officially recorded two tackles and one assist, playing with a low pad level. Despite allowing the Steelers to produce for their first 100-yard rushing game of the year, the 6-foot-3, 281-pound Jones commanded a double team from the opposing O-line.
However, it was a critical penalty by Jones for using 'leverage' on a Steelers' field-goal attempt in the third quarter that allowed Pittsburgh to march down the field and put another touchdown on the board.
That was a low point for Jones. But, while it was a rough day for the Broncos defense, he never quit fighting. Broncos Country should feel confident and comfortable with the unselfish, disciplined, and confident nature of its blue-collar defensive end that continues to kick and scream no matter the outcome of the game.
No One to Stop the Bleeding
For a second-straight week, the Broncos played four quarters of football seemingly without a pulse. The broadcast consistently revealed the same scowling Fangio voicing his frustration on the headset and pacing the sideline by himself.
Where is the leadership on this team, and who’s the captain that is rallying the troops? I can’t find one.
No, I’m not lobbying for players to scream at one another a la Peyton Manning vs. Jeff Saturday back in Indianapolis. But it’d be nice to see some fight and passion ring through with a player leading by example.
While the social media machine maintains that Miller and Justin Simmons are the team leaders, I don’t see it. They're both beloved and respected members of the locker room and community but being a hardnosed leader that can galvanize the troops has never been a strong suit for either player.
Then there’s Bridgewater whose ears are still ringing from the beating at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens and now the Steelers. The team captain has undoubtedly earned the respect of both sides of the ball and has the admiration and love of his teammates but how can a one-year band-aid quarterback come in and bark orders or take charge?
The league doesn’t operate off phantom narratives. Bridgewater's late-game heroics weren't as much of a Broncos' fourth-quarter comeback as it was a Steelers collapse. Pittsburgh managed to keep its composure and eek out a tough win.
Players feel the morale and energy, or lack thereof, in the building, meeting rooms, and on the field. In Pittsburgh, Broncos Country witnessed once again a team that is spiraling downward in desperate need of a hero.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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