The Pittsburgh Steelers won their season opener. James Conner was fully practicing by the end of the week. Mike Tomlin’s division of labor between Conner and Benny Snell who gained over 100 yards last week will be interesting.
The larger story is how a patched up offensive line will perform. Last week, the Giants sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice. At least one sack can be attributed to Ben. Two of last week’s starters are out. The Steelers placed Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski on injured reserve. David DeCastro sits out a second game with a knee injury. The Steelers activated Derwin Gray from the practice squad. Also, former Steeler Jerald Hawkins signed to the roster. Chuks Okorafor steps in for Banner at right tackle. Rookie Kevin Dotson to start at right guard. Can this line protect Ben and open holes for the running game?
THE STEELERS FORECAST
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Broncos. Unsurprisingly, Matt wanted us to watch how the rejiggered offensive line performs. Matt also directed us to see if Diontae Johnson settles into his role and if the tight ends factor more in the passing game. On defense, Matt focused our attention on the outside linebackers. He was looking for T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree to finish some quarterback pressures with sacks. For special teams, he noted Diontae Johnson did not look comfortable returning punts, but Ray-Ray McCloud did on his only kick return. A suggestion to let Ray-Ray perform return kickoffs and punts?
Tyler Wise identified the key matchup to watch this week. Tyler focused our attention on Vic Fangio’s pass defense versus the Steelers receivers. Denver has good tacklers that rally to the ball. They rely on offenses not taking what is underneath and getting greedy. Randy Fichtner needs to be creative and Ben must be willing to take what is there and not force balls. Tyler provides a detailed analysis. Give it a read!
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the five keys to a Steelers victory against the Broncos. First, eliminate special team miscues and improve coverage units. Second, defense limits successful deep passes with none for TD’s. Third, Okorafor and Dotson succeed as next men up. Fourth, Roethlisberger owns the young Bronco cornerbacks. Fifth, effective use of Snell and Conner. Tomlin must play the hot hand and not shuttle back and forth.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Broncos prediction. Alex foresaw a win if Steelers receivers abuse young Denver corners, patchwork offensive line holds their own, and/or Watt or Dupree record their first sack. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if Jerry Jeudy breaks out, Drew Lock extends plays with his legs, and Denver blocks a field goal. Alex predicts the Steelers winning 30-17.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
The Steelers offense look dominant at times mediocre in others. Two touchdowns including a long ball but squander a defensive turnover and settle for a field goal near the end of the half.
A MUFF TO START BUT SCORE AFTER TURNOVER
Diontae Johnson fumbled a hand off one play after an 18-yard punt return. Thankfully, he recovered his own fumble, but the Steelers were in a deep hole after the first play of their first drive. James Conner ran the ball near the original line of scrimmage. Then, JuJu Smith-Schuster gained eight of ten yards needed for a first down. The first drive is a three and out.
The Steelers got the ball back at their own 41-yard line following a defensive turnover. Ben Roethlisberger passes on seven of the next eight plays taking the ball to the two-yard line. Eric Ebron caught a 15-yard pass to start the drive. James Washington picks up a first down with a five-yard grab. James Conner gains eleven yards running up the middle on second and ten. After two incompletions, Ben connects with JuJu and the Steelers are knocking on the door. Conner up the middle behind Kevin Dotson for two yards and a touchdown.
DIONTAE’S TD NEGATED, BUT CLAYPOOL SCORES PLAY LATER
The offense ended the first quarter badly. Maurkice Pouncey and/or Matt Feiler missed blocks and Ben goes down for a ten-yard loss. Ben’s pass to Jaylen Samuels is incomplete on third and 18. Dustin Colquitt’s punt from the nine-yard line doesn’t even reach midfield. Defense holds Denver to a field goal. Lead is now 7-3.
The offense starts the next drive at the 22 before stalling near midfield. Conner gains three yards off the left guard for a first down. Diontae Johnson makes another first down on a pass to the left. Vance McDonald holding penalty pushes the ball back after Conner gains four yards to set up a first and 16. Diontae Johnson jukes defender for an 18-yard gain. But then Ben throws three straight incompletes. Punt.
Diontae Johnson races into the end zone on a long punt return. Terrible Towels are twirling around the world. Almost missed in the sea of golden towels is the yellow flag fluttering from an official’s hand. The referee brings the ball back to the 16-yard line. Then, Ben throws a beauty to Chase Claypool covered by one of the rookie cornerbacks Dave and Alex mention in their forecasts above. Claypool out strides the defender into the endzone for an 84-yard touchdown reception. Steelers up 14-3.
OFFENSE SQUANDERS TURNOVER
Ebron caught holding to put the Steelers in a second and 18 hole on the next drive. Ben passes short to Diontae Johnson for just nine yards. Pittsburgh punts away for a touchback with a little over two minutes left in the half. The defense steps up big with an interception on the very next play. The offense has 1:58 on the clock and all three timeouts to cover eleven yards to paydirt.
Conner up the middle on a short pass for six yards. Denver calls timeout. Conner tries to follow Dotson at right guard gaining three yards to the two. The Steelers can still get a first down. On third and one, Conner hit as Ben hands off for a one-yard loss. Disappointingly, the Steelers settle for a field goal to go up 17-3. The Steelers would get the ball back one more time but with just seven seconds on the clock, Ben kneels to end the half.
Steelers turn the ball over twice in the second half. A touchdown and a big Conner run provide just enough offense to preserve the victory.
THREE TURNOVERS KEEP THE SCORE CLOSE
Is it just my imagination or does the Steeler offense routinely play badly on their first series in the second half? Ray-Ray McCloud’s big kickoff return put the ball at their own 47-yard line. Three straight plays to Conner including a nine-yard passing play had the Steelers in Denver territory. Denver stuffed Benny Snell for a four-yard loss setting up third and 16 play. Ben threw toward JuJu who had tight coverage. Justin Simmons intercepted the underthrown ball to kill the drive. Denver converted the turnover into three points.
The Steelers turned the ball over on downs on the next drive. Ben drew Bradley Chubb into a neutral zone infraction with his cadence inflection to create a third and three play. Roethlisberger then quickly threw six straight short completions. Denver held JuJu to no gain on the last completion to make it fourth and two at the 35. Following a timeout, Ben’s pass to Ebron was incomplete. Denver answers with a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Following the Denver score, Ben went right back to Ebron for a 21-yard gain to open the next drive. Completions to Claypool, Ebron, and JuJu along with a Conner run got the Steelers into sniffing range of the goal line. On second and six it appeared that Ben planned to scramble for a first down; instead, he straightened up and launched a 28-yard scoring strike to Diontae Johnson. After 11 unanswered points it was now 24-14.
The third turnover occurred following the safety that put the Steelers up 26-14. Diontae Johnson returned the kick after the safety 24 yards to the Denver 48. On first down Snell tried a spin move at the line of scrimmage and fumbled the ball. Denver scores and just need a touchdown to take the lead. It’s 26-21. Yoi!
OFFENSE SPUUTERS AT THE WRONG TIME
Pittsburgh needed a long clock killing drive with a score to cushion their depleted lead. Ben’s 12-yard pass to Diontae Johnson is a good start. Vance McDonald’s completion is only three yards but the hand on the clock is still moving. Two straight incomplete passes intended for Diontae, one bouncing off his hands, kill the drive. The drive expends just one minute and a half from the clock with over six minutes left to play. 26-21 but Denver looking confident.
CONNER SPRUNG TO ICE THE GAME
The defense stops Denver on downs. Huge! But there is 1:51 to play and Denver has all their timeouts. Pittsburgh must create a first down to prevent giving the Broncos another chance to score. Conner runs right for five yards. Denver calls their first timeout. Conner runs right again. Remember this is where new starters Dotson and Okorafor are manning the line. Conner is past the line of scrimmage then Derek Watt makes a block that takes two defenders out of play. Conner running to daylight and goes 59 yards to the ten-yard line. Two more Conner runs to expend Denver’s final timeout and run the clock down so Ben can kneel to end the game. A little too close for comfort.
Steelers defense started strong with early strip sack. Allowed just three points and added another turnover in the second quarter.
AGGRESSIVE PLAY YIELDS EARLY STRIP SACK
The defense let Denver reach midfield on the opening drive but then clamped down to force a punt. Drew Lock completed a 20-yard pass to Courtland Sutton to start. Melvin Gordon exceeded Saquon Barkley’s production from last week on his first run. A seven-yard gain. Joe Haden extended Denver’s possession with a pass interference call on third and three. Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu combined to drop Gordon for a two-yard loss on the next play. Steve Nelson defended a pass intended for Courtland Sutton to end the initial drive.
When Denver got the ball back, Gordon gashed the defense for 39 yards on three runs. Deep in Pittsburgh territory Denver tried passing for the score but the ball fell incomplete. A short run and Drew Lock dropped back again to pass. Bud Dupree caught him eight yards behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble. Mike Hilton recovered the ball at the 33 and returned it eight yards to the 41. Dupree’s hit knock Lock out of the game and he did not return.
SWARMING DEFENSE LIMITS DENVER TO FG ON SHORT FIELD
The defense played aggressively during the next several drives. Back-up quarterback Jeff Driskel completed twenty-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy to move the chains. Mike Hilton knifed in to drop Gordon for a two-yard loss on second and one. Terrell Edmunds defended a deep third down pass to Courtland Sutton. He may have been in position to intercept but would have come down out of bounds. Denver punts.
Denver starts the second quarter with the ball at the 36-yard line after Colquitt’s pathetic punt. Driskel passes 19 yards to Jeudy with Terrell Edmunds defending. Former Steeler tight end Nick Vannett false starts to make it first and 15 from the 22. Hilton sacks Driskel to push Denver eight yards further back. Cam Heyward meets Melvin Gordon two yards behind the center. On third and 25 Driskel dumps a short pass to Courtland Sutton, but Mike Hilton stops him for just one yard. Denver must settle for a field goal. It’s 7-3.
Jeudy beat Devin Bush for a 15-yard gain on the next drive. Gordon gained six but that was it. On third and four, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Driskel for an eight-yard loss. Claypool would score his 84-yard touchdown right after this series.
DENVER LONGSHOT FG MISSES AND HADEN INTERCEPTS
Denver tried to answer Pittsburgh’s long strike immediately. Driskel connects with Courtland Sutton for 45 yards with Joe Haden in defense. Already at the 30-yard line on the first play. Alualu comes up with a big sack to push the ball back ten yards. Driskel passes and Alualu knocks it down. Tyson is in beast mode. Driskel throws another incompletion on third and 20. Brandon McManus attempts a 58-yard field goal that is no good. I thought he was going to make it for a second.
The Steelers offense wastes great field position and punts. Driskel passes from the 20 toward Courtland Sutton but Haden intercepts and returns the ball 24 yards to the 11-yard line. The defense put the team in position to create a three-score lead but the offense only gets three.
Denver has the ball one more time in the half. KJ Hamler goes 17 yards and gets out of bounds on first down. Hilton defends a deep pass intended for Hamler. Watt sacks Driskel to set up third and 20. Another long pass is incomplete, and Pittsburgh declines the offensive pass interference penalty.
The Steelers finish the half up 17-3. It feels like the lead should be bigger. The defense set the table, but the offense served leftovers.
Defense gives up eleven unanswered points in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter Denver scores another touchdown but defense ends with a big stop.
11 UNANSWERED THIRD QUARTER POINTS
The Steelers offense left Denver with another short field following Ben’s interception. The defense looked ready to force a three and out, but Driskel completed a 13-yard pass to Hamler for the first. Defense has another third down opportunity. However, on third and six Driskel connects with Noah Fant for 14 yards. Minkah Fitzpatrick reaching for anything grabs some jersey near the neckline and refs penalize him for a horse collar. The penalty moved the ball from the eight to the four-yard line. Acceptable since Fant was scoring if Minkah did not grab a hold of him. T.J. Watt led a swarm of defenders and sacked Driskel to push the ball back six yards. On third down, Driskel throws incomplete with Edmunds in coverage. Defense bends but does not break. Pittsburgh still up 17-6.
Denver gets the ball back late in the third quarter. Their defense is keeping them in the game. On third and two, Driskel targets Jeudy covered by Minkah. Refs hit Fitzpatrick for his second penalty extending Denver’s drive. Royce Freeman runs twice for 17 yards. Mike Hilton roughs the passer and the 15-yard penalty puts the ball on the 20. On the very next play Noah Fant catches a touchdown pass with Devin Bush trying to cover him and Denver succeeds on the two-point conversion. Suddenly, it is 17-14, the defense looks gassed and the Denver offense is clicking when needed along with a little help from their striped friends.
DEFENSE SNAPS ON ANOTHER SHORT FIELD
The fourth quarter began well for the defense. They forced a three and out following Diontae’s touchdown. Driskel completed two passes. But Vince Williams and Alualu dropped Gordon for a two-yard loss on the first. Cam Sutton and Devin Bush limited Fant to one yard on the other. Steelers special team scored a safety when Denver attempted to punt. The Steelers looking good at 26-14.
Unfortunately, the good looks did not last long. Snell fumbled, and the defense was back on the field at the Denver 46. An offensive holding penalty during Gordon’s one-yard gain pushed the ball to the 37. Then the defense went limp. Driskel hits Hamler for 18 yards. An incompletion on the next play turned into a first down when the referees called Bush for pass interference. Driskel finds Tim Patrick on third and seven for 17 yards. Driskel then places a pass in Gordon’s hands in the back corner of the endzone. An ugly defensive series and its 26-21.
BIG PLAY AT CRITICAL MOMENT
Stock in nitroglycerine skyrocketed as citizens across Steelers Nation gulped down their pills to stave off yet another Black & Gold angina attack. Drinks were chugged, sweat wiped off brows, terrible towels clung tightly in our grips. Six minutes to play. The offense is listless. The defense is on its heels. And Denver is swaggering with the ball.
From their own 18, Melvin Gordon ran ten yards before Bush brought him down. Driskel passes to Tim Patrick to set up third and one. Driskel burrows up the middle for a first down on the sneak. Vince Williams stuffs Gordon for a loss and now its third and 11. Driskel throws an incompletion. I start to exhale but no. An official threw a flag on Terrell Edmunds. Steelers fans everywhere proclaim Edmunds a goat. Denver has a fresh set of downs thanks to the sharp eyes of an NFL official. Now in Pittsburgh territory, Driskel connects with Fant for 22 yards. He bobbled the catch, but officials review and uphold the reception. Drats! Mike Tomlin wasted a timeout.
Denver enters the red zone on a DaeSean Hamilton five-yard reception. Gordon carries the ball three yards to the 15. On third and two, Bush defends a pass to Hamler setting up fourth down. A critical moment. The two-minute warning has just passed. If Denver converts and eventually scores there will not be much time left for Pittsburgh to regain the lead. The center snaps the ball, and Pittsburgh comes in on a safety blitz. Terrell Edmunds sacks Driskel to stop the drive. Steelers fans everywhere proclaim Edmunds as G.O.A.T. The big play at the critical moment.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goal kicking and blocking field goals plus any missed PAT attempts.
Chris Boswell kicked off five times. Two of his five kicks were touchbacks. Former Steeler prospect Diontae Spencer returned the first two kicks but only reached the 20-yard line both times. KJ Hamler inadvisably returned the last kickoff from five yards deep in his endzone. Jordan Dangerfield and Chase Claypool tackled him at the 13-yard line by. Claypool recorded three special team tackles. Good coverage.
Brandon McManus kicked off five times. Ray-Ray McCloud returned the first short kick 15 yards to the 22-yard line. On the second from two yards deep, McCloud raced 49 yards to the 47-yard line before McManus tackled him. Always good when you force the kicker to make a tackle. McManus kicked the next three deep for touchbacks.
Sam Martin also booted the ball after the safety. Diontae Johnson returned it 24 yards to near midfield. Advantage Steelers.
Dustin Colquitt punted five times averaging 41.8 yards a punt. Diontae Spencer returned the first two punts 15 yards. Colquitt nets 38.8 yards per punt. Colquitt’s second punt was especially poor. Punting from his own nine-yard line the ball travelled just 36 yards, not even making it to midfield, and worse the punt was returnable. Denver got great field position at the 36-yard line. Subsequently, Denver scored a field goal. Denver did not return Colquitt’s next three punts with two fair-caught behind the 20-yard line. If the Steelers signed Colquitt to be more consistent than Jordan Berry, the early results are not encouraging.
Sam Martin punted four times averaging 42.3 yards a punt. Diontae Johnson returned two punts for 25 yards so Martin’s net average was 36 yards a punt. He returned Martin’s 55 yarder to the end zone but Cam Sutton’s illegal block in the back brought the ball all the way back. Diontae Johnson is a dangerous returner but I do not like the way he carries the ball, it looks ripe for punching out for a fumble. Also, a fifth Denver punt attempt went awry when Martin mishandled a bad snap. Derek Watt had the punter in his grasp when the ball squirted out the back of the end zone. Hope Derek gets credit for the safety. Advantage Steelers.
Chris Boswell made his only field goal attempt. A 21-yard chip shot when the offense could not punch it in or get a first down from the two-yard line near the end of the first half. He made all three extra point attempts. McManus converted two of three field goal attempts. He missed a long 58-yard attempt and made a 49 yarder. Advantage Even.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST REVIEW
- Eliminate special team miscues and improved coverage units. Danny Smith’s crew added two points to Steelers score. Solid returns by Ray-Ray and Diontae despite the one TD called back. Coverage units contained Denver’s return game. Mission accomplished.
- Defense limits successful deep passes with none for TD’s. Fant scored 20-yard TD. At least 13 deep passes attempted with six completions plus one penalty for first down Mission Fail.
- Okorafor and Dotson succeed as next men up. Ben only sacked once from other side. Dotson paved holes for Conner and they helped break him free on 59-yard run. Mission accomplished.
- Roethlisberger owns the young Bronco cornerbacks. 84-yard Claypool TD was with rookie corner in defense. Mission accomplished.
- Effective use of Snell and Conner. Tomlin must play the hot hand and not shuttle back and forth. Conner used as bell cow. Snell used sparingly with just three rush attempts. His fumble hurt but overall: Mission accomplished.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 934 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Just below the standard. Depot contributor Ross McCorkle kept us informed with live updates as we chirped our comments.
Craig Colquitt’s punting had some respondents questioning the upgrade over Jordan Berry. His first punt after a Steelers three and out did not travel 40 yards and gave the Broncos great field position. Respondent Jaybird captured our frustration with the “best” comment of the half: “Punter tryouts on Monday. Guaranteed.”
Jaybird killed it on the discussion thread but may show up on the injury report after Dupree strip-sacked Lock. “Dupree hit with a lot of speed and force; Locke is hurting. I even hurt myself jumping off the couch too fast on that play!!!”
GrumpyHighlander marveled after Chase Claypool’s 84-yard catch and run. “LOL….the knock on Claypool was that he really doesn’t have over-the-top speed despite his 40 time. I always laughed at this. How could anyone have watched him play at ND and thought this.” 6 ring circus replied, “I was skeptical about his hands. My mouth is closed.”
We finished below the standard 1000 comments but the Steelers winning 17-3.
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
Contributions increased to of 1009 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. The Broncos kept it close with some help from officials. The Steelers hang-on with just enough to win.
The Steelers won the game but turnovers, missed plays and some help from Roger Goodell’s squad of striped flying monkeys kept it close. Thomas Johnson had the top comment: “Denver 6 penalties for 1st down… Pitt 0…”
Steve calmly explained why the game was so close at a point when it appeared the lead was slipping away. “That is why you put a team away when you’ve got the momentum. An (A) Rated Team with Talent on Offense and Defense. A Mediocre Coaching Staff. This Is Pathetic!”
Ben’s protection was effective as the 6 ring circus noted, “Ben’s had good protection for the most part. Chuks and Dotson, no mentions. That’s a great sign of things to come.”
Finally, a respondent had a special lucky charm we should be thankful for. Joshwa said “You all have my daughter Zoe to thank.”
The defense set up the offense to build a big lead in the first half, but the offense did not deliver. In the second half, the defense wilted and gave up eleven unanswered points in the third quarter. They allowed too many long passes. Denver completed at least six including a 45 yarder and a 20-yard touchdown. Penalties hurt extending Denver drives too many times. However, they came up big at critical times.
The offense flashed brilliantly at times. The 84-yard Claypool touchdown was a beauty. However, two turnovers in the second half put too much pressure on the defense. The offense also had opportunities to score such as settling for a field goal to end the first half. The Steelers have a fine set of receivers. The rejiggered offensive line played very well. Kudos to Kevin Dotson and Chuks Okorafor. They manned up.
Special teams played beyond my expectations. Great kickoff and punt returns (still worry about Diontae ball security, he carries the ball like a loaf of bread). Scoring a safety is superb. Dustin Colquitt lacking consistency. Not sure that he has proven to be an upgrade over Jordan Berry yet.
The officials starting to get into their old habit of throwing too many flags. I preferred last week’s approach of just calling those penalties that were obvious and directly impacted the results of a play. Plus, it gave an overall smoother game rhythm. This week the tempo was more staccato.
It was frustrating to knock out the starting quarterback. Have several receivers out for extended periods and the Steelers could not win going away. Still it is a win. I’ll take it.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. Steelers win a close one at Heinz Field. Here is Wrap It Up by Sam and Dave. A nod to Depot respondent FlaFan47.