PITTSBURGH — Forty-five minutes before kickoff, hope existed.
The Broncos began their methodical walk from the locker room to the field. With eyes affixed straight ahead from Dalton Risner, Justin Simmons and Von Miller, hollers pierced the bowels of Heinz Field. "Let's get it!" "Here we go!" "On a mission!"
As is too often the case with the Broncos, their words failed to mirror their actions. The Broncos players insisted last week that this team was different, that they would respond, recognizing the urgency of the road schedule.
Instead, they were outmuscled for a second straight week, falling 27-19 at sun-splashed Heinz Field.
"Overall, we just didn't play well enough," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We have to start better."
The AFC West might be football's best division. But the AFC North remains the toughest. The Ravens and Steelers left the Broncos with pelts and bruises as a reminder. Denver's three-game winning streak seems like a year ago as the schedule stiffens, heightening the importance of Sunday's home game against the Raiders.
Yes, the Broncos made it interesting. They had a chance to tie the game with a score and two-point conversion with 17 seconds remaining, set up by a dramatic catch by Kendall Hinton. Teddy Bridgewater, who erupted in the second half, threw his first pick of the season, squelching the comeback. Bridgewater finished 24-for-38 for 288 yards, all but 56 came after intermission.
"I think it's about mindset," said Bridgewater, who explained the team's leadership council of players would address the issue this week. "We just have to get some energy."
The Broncos shaved the Steelers lead to five with 5:46 remaining as Bridgewater connected on a 39 yard diving score to Courtland Sutton, who delivered seven catches for 120 yards on a sprained ankle on his birthday.
A failed two-point conversion left Pittsburgh ahead 24-19, and capable of running out the clock. They failed, but added a field goal.
Sutton's score mattered because of a productive fourth quarter. With 10:15 left, he lofted a two-yard score to Kendall Hinton, the first of the former emergency quarterback's career. Ultimately, the incline proved too slippery to navigate despite Bridgewater's 18-for-27 second half effort.
The win prevented the Steelers from dropping their first three home games for the first time since 1986. It also breathed life into their season. It left the Broncos with hand-wringing concern. Missteps happen in the NFL, where parity rules. It's not who the Broncos are losing to, but how. They failed to answer the bell in the first half for the second straight week, outscored 34-13.
"It is a concern," Fangio said of the offense overall and in the beginning in particular.
The Broncos' first half offensively represented a rumor. They finished with three first downs and 107 yards, 49 on way play. And there were no targets to the tight ends. Winning on the road is hard, and needs no additional potholes. The Broncos made a battery of mistakes in the first 30 minutes, among them third down failures, penalties and failures in coverage.
So much for Schmedium Ben. Big Ben Roethlisberger (15-for-25 for 253 yards, two touchdowns) inflated against the Broncos, riddling them on the first drive. His plan became simple: pick on Kyle Fuller. Roethlisberger zipped the ball in the flat just past the diving Fuller as Chase Claypool raced for 23 yards. Moments later Roethlisberger produced his biggest play of the season, lofting a 50-yard rainbow to Diontae Johnson for a touchdown as Fuller trailed.
Fuller punctuated his awful first half with a second quarter pass interference in the end zone, leading to Najee Harris' one-yard touchdown plunge that swelled Pittsburgh's cushion to 17-6 at halftime. Ronald Darby is set to return this Sunday, which could create an interesting conversation on whether he plays for Fuller since it's hard to see the team sitting promising rookie Pat Surtain at this point.
"I have to have a short memory," Fuller said.
The halftime climb presented a challenge as Bridgewater had never overcome this big of a deficit in his career. It wasn't for a lack of effort given his 232 passing yards. A leverage penalty on Dre'Mont Jones on a third quarter field goal also grew in significance. Instead of Pittsburgh leading 20-6 after a field goal, they scored a touchdown, this after Alexander Johnson dropped a second potential interception.
"It was a critical play," Fangio said.
The game's launch brought back memories of Jacksonsville's opening march where Trevor Lawrence found the end zone. The Broncos shoved back in Florida. In a sun-splashed Sunday in Pittsburgh — no one could remember such back-to-back beautiful weather Sundays in October — the Broncos extended their streak to 24 games without a touchdown on the opening drive.
Worse, the Steelers were having their way with Denver on the ground. Pittsburgh rushed for 92 first half yards, including 89 from Harris. The Steelers entered averaging 55.3 yards per game and finished with 147.
The Broncos finally grew tired of playing the role of heavy bag and countered. On second-and-13 from the 49, Roethlisberger morphed into a statue as outside linebacker Malik Reed — all he does is contribute — notched the strip sack. Johnson recovered the fumble, setting up the Broncos at the 29-yard line. Two run plays fizzled and Bridgewater checked down to Javonte Williams on third and 12.
The Broncos boast more fourth down conversions than they had all of last season. But they stayed conservative as Brandon McManus booted a 39-yard field goal with 1:47 remaining in the first. It was a common refrain, leaving Broncos Country wanting.
Trailing 7-3, Denver struggled to plant a flag and hold its ground. The Steelers continued gashing the Broncos on the ground. Stopping the run was the one thing Denver figured to do well. The Steelers ranked last in rushing attempts with 66. They flipped the script against the Broncos, winning at the line of scrimmage.
The glossy headlines the first month camouflaged third down concerns. The Broncos entered Sunday with a 31.4 percent conversion rate, ranking 30th overall. The Broncos' only third down success came with splash and teeth gnash. Javonte Williams burst for 49 yards to the 2-yard line. He celebrated with a spike, leading to a 5-yard delay of game penalty. They finished 2-for-12 on third down, but 3-for-4 on fourth.
"We have to go evaluate and figure it out," receiver Courtland Sutton said. "Our first three drives were three-and-out, that's not good for us or our defense, putting them right back on the field."
The drive dissolved before the Broncos' eyes. After a short run and horrible sack taken by Bridgewater, the Broncos settled again, refusing to throw to the end zone on third down. No risk it, no biscuit, right?
Field goals lose road games, especially with an offense lacking creativity and balance. Focusing on the run was important. But for Noah Fant to have zero targets — not catches, targets — midway through the third quarter made no sense with Jerry Jeudy (hopefully back in two weeks) and K.J. Hamler lost for the season.
In the end, the Broncos showed resolve. But this team is over consolation victories. When they host the Raiders on Sunday, they need a real win to keep hopes brimming for a winning record and a playoff berth.
"We have to find a way to win close games," safety Justin Simmons said. "That's what good teams do. And we want to be a good team."
The Broncos inactive list featured only one slight surprise. Cornerback Ronald Darby was eligible to play. but was given another week to heal his hamstring. The Broncos' $30 million free agent should start against the Raiders. ...
Kyle Fuller suffered through an awful first half, allowing two gash plays — 50 yard TD, 23 yard first down — and an interference in the end zone, setting up Najee Harris' 1-yard scoring plunge. ...
Alexander Johnson missed opportunities on two interceptions that hit his hands, one in each half, the first of which might have been a pick six. ...
Brandon McManus and Courtland Sutton served as Broncos game day captains. ...
Kareem Jackson jogged to the sideline near the end of the first quarter, signaling for the training staff. He went to the blue tent and rookie Caden Sterns replaced him. Jackson returned midway in the second quarter after being evaluated for a concussion. ...
Shelby Harris was poked in the eye and hurt in the first quarter but walked off under his own power.