The game didn’t turn out quite that way, thanks mainly to Pittsburgh’s refusal to accept any of the Broncos’ fine gifts that would have made Sunday’s affair a laugher. But all was well that ended well in the end, and the Steelers won 26-21 to improve to 2-0 on the young 2020 season.
Let’s count the many gifts Denver delivered to the Steelers, and let’s count how many times they looked that horse in the mouth and simply said, “No, thank you!”
The Broncos first invitation to hand Pittsburgh the game on a silver platter came late in the second quarter, when veteran cornerback Joe Haden intercepted a pass by backup quarterback Jeff Driskel and returned it to the Denver 11. The Steelers were already ahead, 14-3, thanks to a two-yard plunge by healthy running back James Conner, an 84-yard catch-and-run by rookie receiver Chase Claypool and a relentless defense that had just recorded five first-half sacks. The Steelers had knocked starter Drew Lock out of the game, and just secured their second takeaway. A touchdown at that point likely would have put Pittsburgh on easy street. Unfortunately, the drive stalled at the Broncos three-yard line, and kicker Chris Boswell came on to extend the lead to 14 points at halftime.
But no big deal, right? The Steelers received the second-half kickoff and looked to be in great shape when Ray-Ray McCloud returned it 49 yards to the Pittsburgh 47. Sadly, the Steelers rejected this free drink, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw up an ill-advised pass on third and 16 that Broncos safety Justin Simmons gladly intercepted.
Denver took advantage and turned this takeaway into three points to make it 17-6.
And what once looked like a laugher soon turned into a bit of a thriller, when Driskel connected with tight end Noah Fant on a 20-yard touchdown pass to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to five points late in the third quarter. The Broncos cut the lead even more, when Driskel and Fant connected again on the two-point conversion to make it 17-14 in a stadium lacking the fan support needed to help calm the home team’s nerves.
But fear not, because the Steelers answered right back with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Diontae Johnson early in the fourth quarter to make it 24-14.
The Broncos made their final blow-out offer to Pittsburgh a few plays later, when punter Sam Martin fumbled a snap from inside his own end zone, and the ball rolled out of bounds for a safety to extend the lead to 26-14. Johnson returned the ensuing free kick to the Denver 48-yard line. But just when it looked like the black and gold-clad good guys were about to start laughing, running back Benny Snell Jr., the youngster who spent the previous week being called the “Snell Cow,” will now be known as “Benny Smell” for the next few days after fumbling the football right back to the Broncos.
Denver took advantage of that return to sender by making it 26-21 on a Driskel 16-yard touchdown pass to running back Melvin Gordon III.
There was still over a half a quarter left to play, and forget blow-out, the Steelers were just hanging on for dear life.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos facing a third and two from the Pittsburgh 15, the Steelers defense remembered it was good and stymied Denver’s offense on back-to-back plays—including a sack by safety Terrell “Splay Play” Edmunds on fourth down with 1:51 remaining.
The Broncos still had all three of their time-outs, but it wouldn’t matter, as Conner took over and raced for 59 yards on second and five to snuff out Denver’s final chance.
It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t nearly as easy as it should have been, but the Steelers have won their first two games for the first time since 2017.
After getting off to slow starts and missing the playoffs the past two seasons, a 2-0 start, no matter how it was achieved, is an early Christmas gift that could help the Steelers reach a lot of goals in 2020.