DENVER -- Injuries don't discriminate. They tear through teams, inflicting whomever they can, showing no remorse.
The pain of the NFL season has been felt by Broncos Country as just about everyone of their club's best players has been struck. Two weeks in, the Broncos should eschew their D logo for an Ace Bandage.
After Sunday, it's hard to believe it could get worse. Yet, it has gone from bad luck to a cruel joke. Even quarterback Drew Lock could not escape untouched, spraining his right shoulder in the first half of the Broncos' 26-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
"Our whole team had great fight," Fangio said. "The fight was great."
Backup Jeff Driskel lit a match with his spirited play, connecting on touchdowns to Noah Fant and Melvin Gordon to keep the Steelers within reach in the second half before the Broncos fell agonizingly short.
Trailing 26-21, the Broncos took over at their own 18-yard line with 6:08 remaining. In the opening week against the Titans, they had an opportunity to ZipLock the outcome and failed.
Driskel hooked up with Fant on a juggling 22-yard catch to the Steelers' 23-yard line. It set up a critical moment on fourth-and-2 from the 15-yard line with 1:55 left. Steelers cornerback Terrell Edmunds sneaked up to the line of scrimmage. The Broncos didn't believe he would blitz. They guessed wrong.
Edmunds came free, slamming into Driskel for the Steelers' seventh sack.
"That's on me. I have to get my eyes in the right spot," Driskel said. "There's no excuse for lack of execution because you don’t get those reps.”
It turned a spirited comeback into a footnote as the Broncos inch toward queasy history. Only 11 percent of 0-2 NFL teams have reached the playoffs since 2007. This marks the first time the Broncos have started started 0-2 in back-to-back seasons since 1963-66.
The play that could define the Broncos' season if Lock remains sidelined for a significant amount of time unfolded like this: On third-and-7 from the Steelers' 25-yard line, Lock was flushed right as T.J. Watt burst into the backfield past struggling tackle Elijah Wilkinson. As Lock scrambled, he stumbled and was smashed to ground by linebacker Bud Dupree, who was pursuing from the opposite side of the field.
Lock grimaced in pain as the ball squirted loose for a Steelers recovery. It set in a motion a chain of events that spelled trouble Sunday.
Lock is expected to miss a minimum of two weeks, possibly much longer. He will undergo an MRI when the team arrives back in Denver. He wore a sling after the game and admitted the team "will probably proceed with more caution" because it's his throwing arm. If necessary, the Broncos could activate Brett Rypien from the practice squad to serve as Driskel's backup this week.
Lock's injury bore a striking resemblance to the play last season against the 49ers when he sprained his thumb in the preseason. He fell awkwardly on a scramble and missed 10 weeks.
"What you have to do is stay healthy as a quarterback," said Lock, visibly frustrated and disappointed. "I am not going to say I won't stay aggressive. I just need to not have these awkward things happen."
The Steelers turned Lock's turnover into a touchdown as James Conner plowed in from two yards. The score hurt because rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia, targeted frequently, dropped an interception that clanked off his hands. A Brandon McManus field goal -- a 49-yard strike -- shaved the deficit to 7-3 after backup Driskel's second drive.
It foreshadowed a competitive effort from Driskel, who found traction in the second half.
"In light of the circumstances, I thought going against a good defense, I thought he did an admirable job," Fangio said. "And he will only get better if we have to continue with him."
With the outcome in doubt, Roethlisberger let his surgically-repaired elbow eat, launching a pass 55 yards in the air that Chase Claypool hauled in stride for an 80-yard score. Ojemudia was shadowing him, but in the hand jostling lost his balance and no offensive interference was called.
"I will learn from this," Ojemudia said.
Driskel, who completed 18 of 34 passes for 256 yards and two scores, showed a willingness to try deep strikes when he wasn't fleeing for his health. He connected on a 45-yard bullet to Courtland Sutton and a 20-yarder to Jerry Jeudy, who hurt his right ribs on the tackle. In between, the Steelers assaulted sensibility with their pass rush. The Broncos trailed 17-3 at half as Lock (1-for-5, 20 yards) and Driskel combined to complete 7 of 19 passes for 137 yards with one interception and five sacks. The Steelers finished with 19 hits on the quarterbacks.
"It infuriates me. It pisses me off," left guard Dalton Risner said.
While Driskel made a few mistakes worthy of criticism -- the first-and-goal sequence from the 4-yard line after Justin Simmons' interception comes to mind -- the first-half pick wasn't one of them. Sutton should have caught the ball with arms outstretched, rather than deflect it for a turnover. Sutton made the tackle on the play, then missed time with leg cramps and a right knee issue.
It proved a forgettable return to the lineup for the Pro Bowler, who missed the season opener with a sprained right shoulder.
"That's on me," Sutton said on the bench in camera's view after the turnover.
Driskel missed an opportunity to wobble the Steelers in the third. Following Simmons' interception -- the Broncos' first takeaway of the season -- Driskel connected with Fant for a 14-yard gain for his first reception since the second quarter against the Titans. It left the ball at the 4-yard line. He inexplicably took a sack on first down as K,J. Hamler waved his hands wide open in the back of the end zone. On second down he missed Fant, and then failed on a short pass to Gordon, leading to a 28-yard boot from McManus.
That series and the offense's last of the game proved impossible to overcome.
Field goals lose road games. Trailing 17-3 in the third, the Broncos' defense produced a fourth-down stop to keep hope flickering like a 60-watt bulb. The Broncos went back to Fant, their best receiver the first two weeks. He hauled in a 20-yard score, mismatching like plaid on stripes against Steelers linebacker Devin Bush. Driskel drilled another pass to Fant on the two-point conversion, cutting the Steelers advantage to 17-14 with 1:07 left in the third.
The onus fell on the defense to produce another stop. As good as the group has been under Fangio, the defense has had issue closing out games.
"We have to find a way to finish," lamented Simmons.
Early in the fourth, the Steelers converted a fourth-and-2, and Roethlisberger punished the Broncos. As is his wont, Roethlisberger extended a play, and delivered a dime in a tight window to Diontae Johnson who was a whisker ahead of Ojemudia for a 28-yard touchdown. Roethlisberger finished 29 of 41 for 311 yards.
Another inexplicable mistake left hands shaking -- the type that drives home the point why the Broncos are 10-23 on the road since winning Super Bowl 50. Punter Sam Martin dropped a perfect snap in the end zone, was smashed in the left thigh as he tried to scoop up the ball, leading to a safety and a Steelers' 26-14 with 10:01 remaining.
But the Broncos refused to quit. Shelby Harris forced a fumble recovered by Kareem Jackson. Driskel showed poise, lofting a rainbow to Melvin Gordon on the wheel route for a 16-yard score. The Broncos' sideline was juiced. An upset was coming into focus. Then clarity disappeared on Edmunds' blitz, leaving the Broncos to reconcile another painful loss.
"You try to have the next man up mentality. We have a lot of guys hurt right now. But we will come back from that," Fant said. "We are a resilient team. We had a chance to win at the end of the game. We just have to find a way to make more plays."
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- Sept. 29: MLB Wild Card Series
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- Oct. 1: MLB Wild Card Series (If needed)
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