With Denver’s 24-17 defeat of the Steelers, the Broncos solidified their spot in the AFC wild card race.
The win lifts the Broncos to 5-6 record overall and keeps them just a game behind the Ravens and Colts in the race for the AFC’s final wild card spot. However, unlike the Ravens — who play three road games against the Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers — and the Colts who have tough matchups against the Texans and Cowboys.
Instead, the Broncos have an easy slate of games over the next month.
Over the next four weeks, the Broncos play the Bengals, 49ers, Browns, and Raiders. If Denver can take care of business over the next four games, they could easily find themselves as a berserker in the AFC playoff picture come January.
Let’s take a look at some of the players who stole the show in this pivotal Broncos game.
The biggest change in Denver over the past two weeks hasn’t been the weather, it’s been the Broncos’ turnover differential.
Over the past two games, Denver has not given the ball away a single time and has forced six takeaways. In the two games prior, the Broncos turnover differential was 1-3, but that’s turned around in a big way as of late.
The turnovers came at crucial points in the game, too. Will Parks got things started against the Steelers by forcing Pittsburgh tight end Xavier Grimble to fumble at the one-yard line and out the side of the endzone for a touchback. Later, Shelby Harris finished the game with a huge interception of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the endzone with one minute left.
And although it doesn’t technically count as a turnover, Justin Simmons’ blocked field goal was a huge point swing in favor of the Broncos.
Another change that has helped lead Denver to wins in the past two weeks have been contributions from the tight ends.
Last week against the Chargers, tight end Jeff Heuerman led the Broncos in receiving with a career-high in both receptions and yards. This week was Matt LaCosse’s turn. LaCosse made a huge catch to the Broncos their first touchdown of the game. A touchdown LaCosse set up himself with a 17-yard reception on the previous play. To go along with LaCosse, Heuerman followed up his career day with a solid 44 yards off two receptions.
Heuerman could be an emerging star for the Broncos at tight end, and Denver has another star in the making in undrafted rookie running back Phillip Lindsay.
Lindsay was lights-out again for the Broncos, totaling 110 yards on a mere 14 carries. It is shocking that Lindsay still hasn’t received a heavier workload despite his continued success. Midway through the second quarter, Lindsay had just seven yards on three carries. Then, Lindsay found a hole and split the Steelers defense for 32 yards.
After that, there was no looking back and it seemed as if Pittsburgh had no solution to stop the local product.
Although they made some big plays when it counted, for the most part, Denver’s secondary was atrocious.
The secondary allowed Roethlisberger to complete 73 percent of his passes for 462 yards. For much of the game, Roethlisberger was able to dissect Denver’s coverage with ease, as it seemed someone was always open.
Over the course of the Steelers first two drives, Roethlisberger completed a pass to seven different Steelers receivers. For comparison, Broncos quarterback Case Keenum found just six over the course of the entire game.
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown reception, on which he toasted Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, put the exclamation point on a poor showing by the secondary. A showing that could’ve been made even worse had James Washington caught an open deep ball from Roethlisberger after scorching rookie Isaac Yiadom.
Not only was the coverage bad, but the Broncos’ pass rush was disappointing as well. To be successful, the defense needs the pass rush to cause havoc in the pocket for opposing quarterbacks, and that didn’t happen on Sunday.
For much of the game, Roethlisberger was kept clean. It wasn’t until the second half, on a play where both Bradley Chubb and Von Miller were on the sideline, when Denver finally got their first sack thanks to Shaquil Barrett.
Denver’s dynamic duo of Chubb and Miller were kept at bay for the most part and only managed to combine for half a sack. A stat made even more disheartening by the fact that Von Miller was matched up against rookie Chukwuma Okorafor in his very first start.
One problem that continues to trouble Denver though, has been poor play calling. Early in the game, with the ball deep in Steelers territory, the Broncos offense was faced with a third and 18. Rather than throwing the ball and going for a touchdown, a wise move when facing an offense as high-powered as the Steelers, Denver played it safe with a pitch play.
It was reminiscent of Vance Joseph’s decision to settle for a long field goal late against Houston and one equally emblematic of Denver’s play calling woes.
As mentioned before, Broncos offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was once again wary to lean on Lindsay. Not only did Lindsay have just three carries midway through the second quarter, but late in the third, he found himself with just nine despite an astronomic 7.8 yards per carry.
Hopefully, the Broncos can learn to play to their strengths down the stretch.