Gut Reaction: Broncos Squander Chance to Steal a Win in Pittsburgh, Even Without Lock
The Denver Broncos had a tough test in Week 2 as they took on Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL, the Steelers showed their defensive physicality upfront, torching the Broncos' offensive line with heavy blitz packages and a relentless and endless pass rush.
It was a pass rush so fierce, it ended up costing the Broncos much more than a gut-wrenching 26-21 loss and falling to 0-2. Inexplicably, the Broncos still had a chance to win this game — coming back from multiple double-digit deficits in doing so — only to see another play-calling gaffe in a critical situation cost them a win.
Give credit to the Steelers for making the big plays when it mattered most.
What were the takeaways from another close Broncos loss?
Drew Lock is Hurt
Lock is hurt, and it's a long-term injury, meaning it'll cost him more than just Week 2.
Lock was flushed from the pocket after right tackle Elijah Wilkinson got beat by Steelers' linebacker TJ Watt, which was quickly followed by what may have been a miscommunication between Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner, leading to Bud Dupree hitting the QB hard from behind, which saw Lock land hard on his right shoulder.
Lock got up immediately favoring his throwing arm which stopped the heart of everyone in Broncos Country. Making matters worse was the fumble, which the Steelers recovered, ending a scoring chance for Denver early in the game.
The most critical aspect of the 2020 season was figuring out whether Lock is the franchise quarterback of the future, and he is going to miss 2-6 weeks with a sprained AC joint.
The Broncos did everything in their power to give him all of the help that he needed to develop, but one major oversight could deflate that prospect before it even got started. This sucks. A lot.
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Wilkinson Needs to be Benched
Why Wilkinson remains in the starting lineup is something that the coaching staff needs to address immediately. Wilkinson was a turnstile against Watt, allowed multiple pressures, and was a critical component to Lock getting injured on that sack by Dupree (which you can see in the clip above).
Watt came off the edge first and was immediately in Lock's face. Lock escaped from Watt, only to be cleaned up by Dupree from behind. And that wasn't the only play where Wilkinson nearly got his quarterback killed.
The Broncos brought in Demar Dotson during training camp to compete at right tackle — an eight-year NFL starter at the position. Either Dotson is playing worse than Wilkinson in practice, or the coaching staff is bringing him along slowly.
If the latter is the case, the coaches need to drop the kid gloves and get Wilkinson off the field before he ends up costing the Broncos even more than he already has. If it's the former and Dotson isn't showing well enough to give the coaches confidence to play him over Wilkinson?
The Broncos are in trouble. Big trouble.
Jeff Driskel has Guts
Despite losing their starting quarterback, the Broncos didn't quit and put themselves in position to win the game late in the fourth quarter thanks in large part to Driskel
Driskel stepped in for Lock and showed immense mental and physical toughness. Even though he was far from perfect, Driskel was unrelenting and almost had enough to beat a tough defense on the road.
Driskel made several plays that had fans jumping out of their seat, but also others that had them pounding their head against the wall. There were the nice touchdown throws to tight end Noah Fant and running back Melvin Gordon, but then there were two sacks Driskel took in short-yardage situations that ended up costing the Broncos points.
With Lock out for a significant amount of time, Driskel is going to have to figure out a way to avoid those boneheaded mental mistakes. When he was playing well, he brought the Broncos back into the game multiple times.
A few mental mistakes kept him from completing the comeback at the end. It's on him to learn from his rusty but gritty Broncos debut, at least for the near future.
Michael Ojemudia got Exposed
It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Roethlisberger was going to target the Broncos' rookie cornerbacks, but he really went after Ojemudia on Sunday to great success for Pittsburgh.
Ojemudia had a down game compared to his debut performance in Week 1, allowing two touchdown passes in coverage and making two critical errors that helped lead to Pittsburgh's first score of the game.
On that first scoring drive, Ojemudia had a Roethlisberger pass go right through his hands in the end zone, hitting him in the face mask. It was probably the easiest interception he will ever make, and he dropped it. Ojemudia also had a critical missed tackle against JuJu Smith-Schuster a play later, leading to a goal-to-go situation for the Broncos' defense.
If Ojemudia can make either of those plays, the Steelers don't score a touchdown. If he makes the open-field tackle, Pittsburgh's limited to a field goal.
It's just one game and there's still a lot to like about the rookie out of Iowa, but his poor play in coverage and also as a tackler in the open field cost the Broncos a lot today. He should bounce back, though. This was a tough test for him.
Pat Shurmur's Short-Yardage Gaffes
After Driskel took over, you could feel the shift of priorities for the Steeler defense. They were selling out on the run and bringing heavy blitz schemes in short-yardage situations, including several cornerback blitzes off of the right side of the offensive line.
The issue here is that even though you knew they were coming, Shurmur chose to stick with longer developing routes and play-action passing. The Broncos had two critical short-yardage situations, and Shurmur went in an odd direction in both of them.
On first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Shurmur chose to run three consecutive passing plays rather than hand off to his high-priced running back Gordon. The first play ended on one of those bonehead mistakes from Driskel, as he took a horrible sack at the the 10-yard line. The other two were dead from the snap. Denver ended up taking a chip-shot Brandon McManus field goal.
The second short-yardage situation was the one that ended the game for the Broncos. Coming out of the two-minute warning, Driskel and the offense were facing a 3rd-&-2 deep in Steeler territory. Again, Shurmur had Driskel drop to pass on back-to-back plays, with the second ending on another horrible sack taken by Driskel.
Why is Shurmur not handing the ball off in these situations? Does he not trust his offensive line to create enough push? Does he think Gordon will fumble the football?
Whatever it is, his play calling in short-yardage situations has cost the Broncos points in critical goal-to-go situations and a chance at winning a game late in the fourth quarter. This one stings, too.