By Mark Schiff
It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves.
For the second week in a row, the Broncos got out to a commanding halftime lead only to fall apart in the second half and lose in agonizing fashion. Denver’s 34-27 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked their record to 10-4, just one game up on the surging Kansas City Chiefs. And if the Broncos continue to lose, they’re not only in danger of losing their once-commanding lead in the AFC West, but they could miss out on the post-season all together.
All season long, the Broncos’ only constant on offense has been inconsistency. The first half against the Steelers was perhaps their best of the season, as the offense rebounded from running back Ronnie Hillman’s opening-drive fumble with four straight touchdown drives, snapping an ugly streak of 24 consecutive possessions without a TD. Quarterback Brock Osweiler looked confident and poised, receiver Emmanuel Sanders was torching his former team and Denver raced out to a 27-10 lead.
But like last week against the Raiders, the halftime whistle turned Denver’s carriage back into a pumpkin. After going 8-for-8 on third down in the first half, the Broncos couldn’t move the chains, once again hindered by an ineffective running game. That put the pressure squarely on Osweiler, who began forcing passes and was picked off late in the fourth quarter. Receivers dropped catchable balls, the offensive line was repeatedly flagged for holding and Denver’s short possessions put their exhausted defense right back out on the field. It was a painful collapse across all position groups.
For the first time all season, Denver’s killer secondary was outplayed. Despite tossing two interceptions, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still had a monster game, throwing for 380 yards and three scores. Antonio Brown continued to make his case as the best receiver in the NFL, catching 16 balls for 189 yards and two touchdowns, while Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton combined for 16 more catches and a score.
Denver’s stellar run defense held the Steelers to just 23 yards and rendered Pittsburgh one-dimensional, while the pass rush sacked Big Ben three times. But T.J. Ward is dearly missed at the safety position and thanks in part to some uncharacteristically bad tackling, the Steelers were able to move the ball effectively.
Special Teams: C+
Although it didn’t matter in terms of the final score, Brandon McManus’ missed extra point continued his troubling late-season slide from the ranks of the kicking elite. And like last week, Denver’s special teams was on the wrong side of a game-turning play when Jordan Norwood’s spectacular, head’s up punt return for a touchdown was negated by penalty when the offense started trotting on the field while the play was still happening. The lead remained at 7 instead of 14 and Denver went 3-and-out on their next possession.
The aforementioned illegal substitution typified another sloppy game in which Denver committed far too many costly penalties (12 for 127 yards to be exact). The coaches did a great job coming up with a successful game plan in the first half, then abandoned it for the type of conservative, play-not-to-lose signal-calling that slowly gets you beat by good offenses. The lack of consistency on offense has as much to do with coaching as it does execution.
Pittsburgh deserves credit for putting up more points than any other opponent, but this was a another loss begotten from Denver’s mistakes. The Broncos will try to correct them next week when they take on one of the AFC’s best teams, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.