DENVER (CBS4) – Denver versus Pittsburgh: it’s an AFC rivalry that has stood the test of time and has heated up lately. The Broncos knew the Steelers would be hungry after Denver won in the AFC Wildcard round last January on the first play of overtime, and they came to play on Sunday night. But the Broncos—led by all-time great Peyton Manning—were just too good, and controlled the game late, eventually winning 31-19.
Denver Broncos offense overall: B
The offense started very sluggishly, but Peyton Manning and his new men got into a rhythm in the second quarter. Once Denver came out in the no-huddle, Manning and Co. made it look oh, so easy. Denver marched 80 yards methodically and capped the drive off with a seven-yard touchdown run by Knowshon Moreno in the second quarter.
Demarius Thomas came up huge in the third quarter, catching a wide receiver screen, running with a bit of patience, then turning on the after burners and going 71 yards to the end zone. The electrifying play gave the Broncos the 14-13 lead midway through the third. Also, Willis McGahee ran very well, with 16 carries for 64 yards on the day. In all, six receivers caught the football in the contest, keeping Pittsburgh’s defense guessing all day long.
Knowshon Moreno had a forgettable game, not doing much good outside of his touchdown. He missed a block that turned into a sack and missed a play-action that nearly led to another.
Denver Broncos defense overall: B
The Broncos did a great job of swarming to the Pittsburgh players and taking them down when they got there. Overall, Denver’s defense slowed the run down to a crawl, and the traditionally ground-and-pound Steelers could only muster 75 yards rushing.
Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did find his receivers all night long, hitting some wide open—like Heath Miller on the team’s first touchdown—while fitting the football into tight windows at other times. He’s wonderful at extending the play with his legs, then finding an open receiver as he always does. He had 22-40 for 209 yards with two scores and one interception.
Derek Wolfe recorded his first career sack as the rookie second round draft pick took down Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter. Tracy Porter tipped away a sure touchdown to Heath Miller in the second quarter, forcing the Steelers into a field goal. Porter, veteran cornerback that Denver signed in the offseason, played very well all around by locking down Mike Wallace repeatedly. Then, to end the game, he jumped in front of Emanuel Sanders for the pick-six, putting the Broncos up 31-19.
Joe Mays had a big sack on Roethlisberger in the third quarter, setting up a third and long for Pittsburgh, that they eventually converted. But Mays also got burned by Miller on his touchdown in the second quarter and at other points during the game as well.
Von Miller, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, recorded two sacks on Roethlisberger on the Steelers final drive.
Special Teams: C-
Special teams has been a weak link on the Broncos for years, and it doesn’t look to be a great unit for the team in 2012. Denver gave up far too many yards on returns, especially early, giving the Steelers great field position and the short field all first half.
Conversely, the Broncos were a complete non factor on returns, with Jim Leonard’s 12 yard return being the longest of the day. The Steelers enjoyed 50 yards on three returns, while the Broncos’ Leonard got 22 yards on two punt returns.
Peyton Manning, like Denver’s offense, started slowly. But once the team got into the no-huddle, he excelled. He hit four different receivers on the 12-play drive that gave the Broncos a 7-3 lead in the second quarter.
After waiting for over an hour to take a snap, Manning hit Demayius Thomas for a 71-yard touchdown that gave Denver the 14-13 lead midway though the third quarter.
Late in the game, Manning completely controlled the pace of the contest. During the Broncos’ last drive, he repeatedly stopped before hiking the ball, read the defense to see Troy Polumalu coming on a blitz. He stood up, put his hands on his hips and changed the play multiple times, just toying with the NFL’s best defense.
Peyton Manning finished going 19-26 with 253 yards passing and two touchdowns, a 129.1 quarterback rating.
Manning proved once again he’s the smartest quarterback in the National Football League. He studies the game like no one else, putting in hundreds of hours in the film room, learning all he can about opposing defenses.
Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.