3 Up 3 Down: Drew Lock’s injury downs Broncos against the Steelers

Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant (87) scores a twenty yard touchdown behind Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush (55) during the third quarter at Heinz Field.
Sep 20, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant (87) scores a twenty yard touchdown behind Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush (55) during the third quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos fell to 0-2 after suffering a heart-breaking 26-21 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a surprisingly close game, considering that the Broncos were severly undermanned and lost both Courtland Sutton and Drew Lock to injury.

Here are three players that improved their stock on Sunday, and three players that hurt their stock.

3 Up

Jerry Jeudy

The Broncos debut of Jerry Jeudy was very muddled. He looked the part of a superstar with his preternatural ability to release off the line of scrimmage, separate from coverage with his route, and his rare quickness. He also broke the hearts of Broncos Country with two critical drops on would-be big play third-down conversions.

The second showing of Jeudy had even more positive and a lot less negative. After Lock went down, Jeudy single-handedly kept the offense afloat momentarily, as he gained 54 yards on the next three Broncos drives while the rest of the offense produced -1 yards. That production might have continued throughout the first half had he not taken a brutal shot from Devin Bush that prematurely ended his half.

In the second half, Jeudy continued to make plays and finished with 62 yards on four receptions. He might not have had his breakout game yet, but it’s clear that it’s on the horizon.

Justin Simmons

Justin Simmons‘ campaign for a new contract that could make him the highest-paid safety in all the land got off to a rough start against the Titans.

In Week 1, Simmons was targeted in coverage five times and on those targets, he allowed four receptions for 66 yards, a touchdown, and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

The Broncos Week 2 matchup with the Steelers went much better for Simmons. He announced his arrival to the game in the first half on a safety blitz where he got an unblocked look at Big Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger got rid of the ball in time, but with arms fully extended, Simmons was able to knock the pass back at him.

Then, in the second half, Simmons gave the Broncos a spark of life when he ended the Steelers opening drive with an interception that he followed up with a nice return, setting up a Brandon McManus field goal.

Noah Fant

2019 first-round pick Noah Fant had an excellent matchup in his first game against Bush, the player many members of Broncos Country wish the team drafted instead. He also continued to build on his strong Week 1 performance, which makes it seem like he’s improved on the consistency issues that plagued his rookie season.

Fant ended the game with four receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown, all of which came in the second half. Moving forward the offensive staff has to do a better job of incorporating Fant into the offense all game long.

His second-half touchdown with Bush in coverage was the first touchdown of the game for the Broncos and kept the team in the game. He then immediately followed the touchdown up with a successful two-point conversion that brought the Broncos within three.

On the Broncos’ final drive, Fant made an impressive bobbling catch that set Denver up with a chance to take the lead late in the game, but unfortunately, they were unable to capitalize.

3 Down

Broncos health

The Broncos just can’t catch a break this season.

First, they lost a starting tackle in Ja’Wuan James as he made the completely understandable decision to opt out of this season. That was unfortunate, but with Elijah Wilkinson stepping up it didn’t seem like a killer.

In the final two weeks of training camp, they lost the face of their franchise, Von Miller, for the season thanks to a torn ACL. That move was devastating both because of Miller’s incredible talent at a key position, but also because he’s one of the team’s key leaders. They also lost star wide receiver, Courtland Sutton, for a week, which killed the offense as he was Lock’s most trusted pass-catcher.

As Week 1 started, things didn’t get any better for the Broncos, who lost their best cornerback, A.J. Bouye, and star running back Phillip Lindsay. Both of those players are expected to miss the next two-to-three weeks.

In Week 2, the Broncos’ injury report somehow managed to get even worse as Drew Lock suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder that took him out of the game. Prior to Lock’s injury the offense was moving the ball much better than expected and had a chance to take the lead.

Later in the game, Jeudy suffered a rib injury but, fortunately for the Broncos, he eventually returned and continued to make a large impact on the offense. Sutton on the other hand went down late in the first half and didn’t return to the game.

Offensive line

One of the biggest positive takeaways from the Broncos in Week 1 was how well the offensive line played. That did not carry over into Week 2 against a loaded Steelers front seven.

Both Lock and Jeff Driskel were constantly harassed by the Pittsburgh pass rushers, and as a result, it quickly became clear that Denver could barely move the ball through the air and that every dropback was a risky proposition.

In the first half alone, Denver’s quarterbacks were hit 11 times and sacked five times. That means that on nearly three-fifths of the team’s first-half dropbacks, Lock and Driskel were getting lit up by T.J. Watt and Co.

The offensive line improved in the second half quite a bit, but the Broncos wouldn’t have had to dig themselves out of such a deep hole if the line played better in the first half.

Michael Ojemudia

With Bouye placed on injured reserve, Michael Ojemudia had a lot on his plate in the second game of his career, and while he had some good moments, he disappointed on the whole.

He forced a three-and-out on the Steelers’ first drive by pushing JuJu Smith-Schuster out of bounds short of the sticks, but things quickly went south. On the Steelers’ first scoring drive, Ojemudia played excellent coverage to set up an interception opportunity, but it slipped through his fingers. A few plays later, the Steelers took a 7-0 lead.

Later in the game, in the second quarter, he become responsible for the second Pittsburgh touchdown when Chase Claypool beat him deep over the top. From that point on, Roethlisberger consistently targeted Ojemudia as a weak point on the Broncos and got beat for a third touchdown in the third quarter.

The flashes are there with Ojemudia that leave you feeling confident he should be a starter for a long time, but there’s plenty of areas in his play where he needs to improve and develop. He should get plenty of experience this season as Bouye recovers.