For the first time this season, the Broncos were dealt a loss.
And they didn’t like it much.
“Honestly, we got the taste of winning,” wide receiver Tim Patrick said Thursday. “After winning all of our preseason games — even though it’s preseason — and winning our first three games, everybody forgot that feeling of losing, and nobody liked it. There wasn’t much that needed to be said. We just need to get back on track. We had a lot of small mistakes that we’re fixing this week, and we’re going to go out to Pittsburgh and handle business.”
As the Broncos attempt to rebound, they’ll head to Pittsburgh for a matchup with the 1-3 Steelers — and the stakes are high for both teams. With a win, the Broncos would improve to 4-1 on the season and claim a three-game road winning streak for the first time since 2015. Since 1990, 77.8 percent of teams to start the year 4-1 made the postseason, while only 49.4 percent of teams to start a season 3-2 earned a playoff bid.
The Steelers’ sense of urgency may be even more extreme, as 21.3 percent of teams have rebounded from a 2-3 start since 1990 to make the postseason. If a team slips to 1-4, the success rate is just 7.3 percent.
The Broncos’ focus in Pittsburgh, though, will solely be on themselves.
“We understand that, but it’s not about them,” safety Kareem Jackson said Monday. “It’s about what we do. We have a great group of guys, and it’s all about what we do — control we can control. Nine times out of 10, if we do what we’re supposed to do throughout the week in practice, and if we go and execute, we can play with anybody.”
As outside linebacker Von Miller said on Thursday, the Broncos have no other option than to respond.
“We all know how serious [getting] this win is for us,” Miller said. “We all know the type of situation that we’re in. We need to go ahead and win these games now instead of waiting to the end of the season and praying and hoping for wins to get in the playoffs. All these wins count, and we need as many as we can get to start the season off.”
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can get back to their winning ways against the Steelers and earn their first win in Pittsburgh since 2006.
CAN THE BRONCOS’ OFFENSE GET BACK ON TRACK?
The Broncos totaled just 254 total yards and completed 3-of-14 third downs as they posted seven points in a Week 4 loss to the Ravens. Denver’s offensive efforts became more difficult after Teddy Bridgewater exited late in the first half with a concussion, but the Broncos struggled even with their starter in the game. Denver punted on six of its seven first-half possessions and twice went three-and-out in the second quarter.
Excluding Denver’s final drive of the game, the Broncos needed an average of 10.1 yards on third down, which limited their ability to convert. And the Broncos’ challenges on third down stemmed, in part, from the team’s performance on earlier downs. Nine times in the game, the Broncos dropped back to pass on first down and either threw an incompletion or gave up a sack. The resulting second-and-10 — or worse — put the Broncos in a hole, and they weren’t able to recover. Against a Pittsburgh defense that ranks 25th on third down, perhaps the Broncos will be able to convert at a higher clip than their current 31.4 percent success rate. The key, though, will be to improve on early downs.
A more successful run game could help in that area, as the Broncos ran just four times in the second half against the Ravens. Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur stressed Thursday the benefit that the run game can bring to an offense.
“I think it’s important to stay balanced,” Shurmur said. “The balance each game might be a little bit different. … We didn’t stay on the field and convert third downs. We had a lot of long third downs early in the game. When those don’t get converted and you’re not staying on schedule, then you don’t get to do some of the things that you would like to do. For us, it involves running the ball.”
Of course, it will also help if Bridgewater can return to the field to lead the offense. He was a full participant in Friday’s practice, but he has yet to be officially cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol.
If he does return, he’ll need to be wary of a Pittsburgh defense that features former first-team All-Pros T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh’s defense ranks just 21st in takeaways and 19th in sacks through four weeks, but the unit has more than enough talent to challenge Denver.
Especially up front, the Broncos will have to be better to handle that test. The team is expected to regain starting guards Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow, but the entire operation will need to be cleaner after the Broncos gave up five sacks in Week 4.
“There’s a lot of people involved in that,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the game. “Obviously, the offensive line, the backs, tight ends when they’re asked to pass protect, and the quarterback. It’s a multi-faceted operation, and I’m sure we had breakdowns across the board there.”
Fangio said the Steelers’ defensive scheme is “a little bit” similar to the Ravens’ pressure-heavy defense, which could help the Broncos as they head to Pittsburgh.