The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to run a winning streak up to seven games for the third time in as many years, which they can accomplish today with a win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium. To do it, they will be down Marcus Gilbert and Stephon Tuitt again for the second week in a row. While Matt Feiler is active, Jeremy Fowler reports that he expects Chukwuma Okorafor will start. Feiler is dealing with a pectoral injury and only practiced on a limited basis during the week.
Among the other notable inactives is rookie linebacker Matthew Thomas, with cornerback Brian Allen seemingly taking his place instead. With Olasunkanmi Adeniyi now practicing, I can’t help but wonder what this might mean, if anything. Or as one Twitter user suggested to me, perhaps it could be due to the elevation. An unusual inactive in Denver should always raise an eyebrow, I suppose. Mason Rudolph, Justin Hunter, Zach Banner, and Marcus Allen are the other inactives.
The Steelers kicked off first, with Cameron Heyward opening things up with a run stop on first down. Philip Lindsay picked up four yards to make it third and five from the 30. Case Keenum under pressure could not find his receiver for an incompletion with Joe Haden in coverage for a three and out.
The Steelers opened in a two tight end set, but with Vance McDonald in the slot. Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a first down to open the drive out past the 30 for 14. A play-action look went to McDonald for nine yards. Okorafor did indeed start, by the way. On second and one, a screen pass to Brown picked up first-down yardage, but an illegal formation penalty made it second and six instead. Roethlisberger pump faked the ball about half a dozen times before rolling to his left and finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for first-down yardage. An illegal contact penalty was declined.
Just across midfield, Roethlisberger targeted Smith-Schuster over the middle, but the receiver wasn’t looking for the pass yet and it bounced right off his facemask. A screen pass to Conner did manage to add seven with Okorafor out in front to make it a manageable third and three. With Jaylen Samuals in the slot, to ball went to the rookie back, who shook a tackle for a catch and run of 10-plus.
Brown threw a pass that he just missed his mark on for an incompletion. On second down, Roethlisberger could not connect with James Washington. Now third and 10, he looked long for McDonald, who could not make a one-handed catch. Chris Boswell came on for a 48-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked.
The Broncos took over at the 38. Keenum’s first-down pass for Emmanuel Sanders fell incomplete. After a completion to midfield, Lindsay added two. A wide open Jeff Heuerman hit a big play on a wheel route down to the 18 of the Steelers.
A quick out to Sanders added two yards on first down, but Keenum could not find him again down the seam. On third and eight, L.J. Fort was held on a screen pass that nearly picked up first down, and Tomlin chose to accept the penalty to make it third and 18. They settled for a short toss. Brandon McManus from 41 yards out just connected inside the right upright to give the Broncos the first score and lead of the game.
From the 25 after a touchback, Conner got his first rush of the game for about two yards. Ryan Switzer got the handoff for a gain of about four. Now third and four, Roethlisberger found Switzer out of the right slot for the first down.
Jesse James caught a pass over the middle for nine, the seventh different target on seven completions. Roethlisberger’s pass to Washington on an out route was broken up by Bradley Roby. Conner picked up the first down on third and one.
After a short gain of three, Conner plunged forward for another three. Smith-Schuster made a nice grab in traffic to convert on third and four. Down to the Broncos’ 33, Conner made a good cut to add about five or six yards. Limited to three on second down, the first quarter ended setting up a third and one. On the play, Roethlisberger used play action to get the ball to Xavier Grimble, who had a free run up to the goal line. Once there, he lowered a shoulder into the one defender there, but lost the ball as he crossed the goal line, fumbling out of bounds. The result was no points, and a touchback for the Broncos.
Heyward batted the ball up in the air on first down, but no defender could pick it off. Freeman was stuffed for no gain on second down. Now third and 10, Keenum scrambled out of the pocket under pressure and rookie Courtland Sutton made a great grab to hold on to the ball for the conversion.
Haden, following Sanders, forced Sanders out of bounds after a first down. T.J. Watt had to come off the field after colliding with Fort. Keenum under pressure again couldn’t connect with his receiver, but the receiver committed offensive pass interference, Tomlin accepting the penalty. Now second and 13, Keenum had Sanders open down the field, but he couldn’t quite old on. On third down, his pass fell incomplete in the middle of the field.
Starting from the 21, Conner picked up five yards on first down. A short pass to Smith-Schuster picked up a new set of downs. Roethlisberger found Brown for another short pickup over the middle. On second and four, the pair connected again for five. Near midfield, he checked down to Conner, who rolled forward for about six, and a facemask penalty added 15 more down to the 31.
A play-action look to Smith-Schuster only picked up two yards, with Tramaine Brock making a good open-field tackle. A completion to Switzer would have gotten the first, but McDonald was flagged for an illegal pick. Now second and 18, a short screen to Conner only added a few yards back to make it third and 11. Brown could only get 10 yards. Boswell’s second attempt of the game was good and tied the score at three apiece.
Mike Hilton was flagged for a neutral zone infraction on the first play of the drive, and then Lindsay was able to find a hole for a big gain, Terrell Edmunds finally chasing him down across midfield to the 38.
Freeman added three yards on the following play toward the right side. Vince Williams showed good speed to the sideline to bring Lindsay down after a two-yard gain to the edge. Now third and five, Keenum was able to convert on a six-yard pass.
LaCosse found a soft spot between Edmunds and Haden down the left side for a big gain to set up first and goal from the 10. Keenum went right back to him for the touchdown a play later, giving the Broncos a 10-3 lead.
The Steelers looking to respond to the touchdown drive opened theirs with a six-yard completion to Smith-Schuster. Roethlisberger found McDonald for 18 on a left out route with under three minutes to play in the half. Another short catch for Smith-Schuster got five more, followed again by a catch for a first down by McDonald, around midfield at the two-minute warning.
With Brown in the backfield, Roethlisberger merely handed off to Conner for a short gain. Switzer made another big grab down the field in traffic down to the Broncos’ 31. Then he misfired to Switzer on the following play for his first incompletion in 16 attempts. But Roethlisberger again went back to Switzer down the middle of the field for a big gain to set up first and goal, absorbing a big hit in the process.
Now from the seven, Roethlisberger once again went to Switzer for five. McDonald dropped a touchdown on second down. Smith-Schuster was blown up for no gain on the shovel pass. Tomlin settled for a field goal to make it 10-6 going into halftime.
OR NOT. Boswell took the direct snap and tossed a touchdown to Alejandro Villanueva, the college tight end/wide receiver, to tie the game at 10-10 at halftime.