The Week 2 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos took an early twist as Broncos quarterback Drew Lock was injured and ruled out in the first quarter. While the Steelers initially took control of the game with backup QB Jeff Driskel under center, the Broncos fought hard to a narrow 26-21 loss that was in the balance right up until the last couple of minutes. With the Steelers advancing to 2-0 and the Broncos dropping to 0-2, what were the key takeaways for both sides coming away from this Week 2 game?
Kevin Dotson and Chuks Okorafor filled in well on the Steelers offensive line
The Steelers have to feel good about the offensive line coming out of this game. Ben Roethlisberger had lots of time to throw in the pocket and had lanes to extend the play as well. Most importantly, the right side of the offensive, Dotson and Okorafor, were both rock solid. They held tough in pass protection the entire game, including Dotson doing so against a very good player in Jurrell Casey.
In the running game, Dotson was blowing holes wide open for the running backs to run through. On James Conner’s touchdown, Dotson buried a lineman into the ground. Okorafor used his swift feet to hold the line and got a good push as well. The rest of the offensive line also put together a much better performance than Week 1.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dotson’s performance was how composed and confident he looked. For a fourth-round rookie who was thrown into the fire, he looked great. Even going as much to run down the field with Roethlisberger as it looked like he may take off. It was impressive, to say the least, and the Steelers will feel even better once David DeCastro is back in action.
Randy Fichtner’s play calling is an issue for the Steelers
The Steelers players made some mistakes, especially in the secondary. However, the secondary was good last week, and it seems likely a unit as talented as that will be able to bounce back. Elsewhere, Benny Snell had a costly fumble, and the number of penalties was awful, no matter how nitpicky some of those were. However, the thing that sent the Broncos comeback into motion was a slew of questionable offensive calls.
On 2nd and 18, Fichtner decided to stay conservative and run the ball. He then followed it up with a short shallow mesh concept on 3rd and long, leading to a Steelers punt. On the very next series, Fichtner dialed up an odd screen call to Jaylen Samuels on another 3rd and long.
There were simply too many screens and conservative calls. In addition, it seemed lots of route combinations did not have enough spacing. Fichtner needed to create space for his players to work and he did not do it consistently enough this week.
However, simply put, taking the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands and not letting him decide the fate of this team was an almost fatal decision. When allowed to play to his strengths, Roethlisberger sliced up the Broncos defense. As a learning point to take forward, Fichtner needs to call plays that let Roethlisberger air it out and run the offense. Perhaps even there should be the freedom to operate more no-huddle offense. With the passing weapons this offense has, there should not be any reason why this team does not let Roethlisberger work within his capabilities. Early in the season, they appear to have shackled him, and that needs to change.
Week 2 highlights the ups and downs of Diontae Johnson
The most frustrating player on this team today may have been Johnson. With his level of talent, he has some maddening inconsistencies. His highs and lows are a microcosm of the Steelers team as a whole. Today showed a direct correlation with all of that.
Sunday saw Johnson’s seventh fumble in 18 games, and his ball security must improve going forward. Johnson also had two drops, which is another area of his game that must be cleaned up. He led the Steelers in drops last year as well, so this not a new concern.
However, Johnson’s smooth route, electric plays in the open field, and the impact he has on defenses is something that can not be replaced. The plays in the return game on Sunday he pulled were dazzling. Some of the plays he made after the catch demonstrated his quickness, elusiveness, and suddenness. The touchdown he caught was a great adjustment to a ball thrown behind him.
Johnson is a young, inconsistent player who has to work to do to improve the inconsistencies that can kill his own team. It will be a learning process for the young, talented receiver. He has star potential, but mentally, he has to know that cleaning up mistakes should be the number one priority.
The Broncos have to get healthy
With Drew Lock unable to finish the game against the Steelers, it marks consecutive weeks when a significant starter has gone down with an injury. Last week against the Titans, it was starting cornerback A.J. Bouye who was injured and did not return, as well as starting running back Phillip Lindsay, who missed Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh with a foot injury. Lock’s shoulder injury wasn’t the only significant injury the Broncos would suffer in their loss to the Steelers.
Throughout the game, Denver had multiple players miss time and had players get ruled out for the remainder of the game. Wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who was coming back from a shoulder injury, went down with a leg injury following the Joe Haden interception in the second quarter. Defensive lineman Demarcus Walker also missed the remainder of the game with a calf injury, which proved to be costly when Dre’mont Jones than also went down in the late stages of the game.
In the NFL, injuries happen, but in Denver’s case, their lack of experience at certain positions means that just one injury to any given position group could be a costly one. Denver’s defense kept them in the game, forcing the Steelers offense to sputter at times, but in the end, the injury to Lock and others proved to be too much to overcome.
Noah Fant is proving that the draft-day trade was the right one
When Denver traded down in the 2019 NFL Draft with Pittsburgh to take Noah Fant with the 20th overall pick, many Broncos fans were upset that the team did not select linebacker Devin Bush out of Michigan. However, it appears the Broncos may have found themselves a special player at tight end, as Noah Fant had yet another big game in Week 2. Fant finished with four catches for 57 yards, including a touchdown reception where he beat Bush for the score. While the need for a linebacker in Denver has been a key issue for years, Fant is proving that he was worthy of the first-round selection.
After a big game against the Titans, Fant continued to make big plays against the Steelers defense. As well as scoring the touchdown on Bush, he made an incredible catch on the sideline for a 22-yard gain that kept the Broncos offense moving late in the game with a chance to score and take the lead. Even after a Pittsburgh challenge, the catch for Fant stood, as he was able to keep his focus and maintain possession of the football while getting both feet inbounds. While the drive ended up faltering for the Broncos, Fant’s catch was a bright spot and a reminder that the team made the right move.
On the other side of the trade, Bush made plays against the Broncos, including a key pressure early on Lock. However, he made some key mistakes that would help keep the Broncos around, including that touchdown against Fant. Bush is still an incredibly talented player and will anchor the middle of the Steelers’ defense for years to come, but on Sunday, Fant won the battle.
Denver’s defense needs to create more pressure
While the Steelers young and flashy defensive front created all sorts of havoc for the Broncos offense, collecting seven sacks on the day, their offense was able to operate without much trouble. The loss of Von Miller was one that we knew would be impactful, but the Broncos defensive front has been struggling to create pressure over their first two games this season. On Sunday, there were three quarterback hits accounted for on Roethlisberger and Denver recorded just one sack, which belonged to Mike Purcell.
By bringing in Jurrell Casey via trade, Denver was looking to create more pressure, but it hasn’t come to fruition as of yet. Against Tennessee, Denver recorded 10 pressures and one sack. Their defensive scheme relies on the front four to create pressure in order to force opposing quarterbacks to make quicker decisions, resulting in potentially poor decisions. With less pressure and more time, teams have been carving up the Broncos defense.
Denver has to figure out something in order to get to the quarterback, but without Miller, it makes things difficult. With Miller commanding between two to three blockers on a given play, it opened up a lot for the interior rushers. However, without him, Denver has struggled to recreate that force. Pittsburgh took advantage and gave Roethlisberger plenty of time, even with two new starters on the offensive line.