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Broncos almost rally late, but missed opportunities hurt Denver in 27-19 loss

PITTSBURGH — For a quarter, the Broncos looked the part.

Teddy Bridgewater completed 13-of-21 passes for 176 yards, two touchdowns and a 100.5 quarterback rating.

Courtland Sutton caught three passes for 73 yards and a score.

The Denver defense held the Steelers to a three-and-out on one possession and a field goal on the other.

The Broncos' fourth-quarter performance was good enough that it almost erased three quarters worth of miscues that plagued the team on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. 

But not quite.

On fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Bridgewater's pass intended for Sutton was intercepted, and the Broncos' hopes of stealing a game in which they missed a slew of opportunities fell flat.

"The interception at the end of the game, [it was] just one of those plays where the defender covered it well," Bridgewater said after the game. "Just tried to back-shoulder 'Court' at least to give him a chance to make a play. The defender covered it so well that there wasn't really a window to throw a high ball outside. It just sucks, man, to end the game like that. But the fight we saw in this team in the fourth quarter, it was impressive. There's a lot of positives to take away from this one. We can't let this feeling of losing linger."

Bridgewater isn't wrong; the team's response was impressive. After Chase Claypool split the team's safeties for a third quarter touchdown that pushed the Steelers' lead to 18, the Broncos seemed out of the game. Bridgewater, though, led a 14-play, 75-yard drive in response. The Broncos converted three fourth downs, including a fourth-and-goal where Bridgewater found wide receiver Kendall Hinton for his first career touchdown.

The defense then held the Steelers in check to force only their second three-and-out of the day. On the fifth play of the ensuing Broncos drive, Bridgewater found Sutton for a 39-yard touchdown that cut the lead to five points.

"We needed a big play," Sutton said. 'We needed to be able to score quick and give our defense a chance to go out there and stop them so we could get the ball back [and] have a chance to go win the game."

With just over two minutes remaining, the Broncos had that opportunity to tie the game in regulation, and they came within 10 feet of pulling off the comeback. But for all the points they scored in the fourth quarter, they couldn't make up for the four points they left off the board or the 11 points they handed to Pittsburgh.

Their offensive struggles came midway through the second quarter, as Denver faced a critical third-and-1. The Broncos looked poised to run the ball to the right, but Bridgewater flipped the ball to Williams, who took off to the left. He broke free for a 49-yard carry to the 2-yard line, but the Broncos would get no closer to the end zone. Williams was penalized five yards for spiking the football. He explained after the game that he was upset that he didn't score, and he didn't know he would receive a penalty for spiking the ball on a non-touchdown play.

Two plays later, Bridgewater took a 12-yard sack that forced Denver to settle for a field goal rather than a game-tying touchdown.

"I had no chance," Bridgewater said. "I probably should've just threw it to [Andrew] Beck in the flat to get it out fast. Maybe he catches it and gets tackled at the two or the one. The 'backer just came free. Obviously we had a miscommunication with something in that area. It's tough. That's a pivotal moment in the game where you get a big play. You get a penalty and then you get a negative play afterward. You're moving in the wrong direction when you're down there. It obviously doesn't end well most times. A lot to learn from in that situation for me, offense all the guys. We've got to just be better."

Four points for Denver, off the board.

On the ensuing Steelers drive, the Broncos nearly recovered from a 59-yard Claypool reception. On second-and-15, Alexander Johnson had a sure interception slip through his fingers. A play later, on third-and-15, cornerback Kyle Fuller was whistled for pass interference in the end zone. Fuller had been beaten earlier in the game on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson, and the penalty gave Pittsburgh a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

"He had a bad day," Fangio said.

Najee Harris, who rushed for a career high 122 yards, scored a touchdown to push the lead to double digits.

Seven extra points for Pittsburgh, on the board.

The biggest miscue, though, may have come on the Steelers' lone possession of the third quarter. The Steelers chewed more than seven minutes off the clock as they drove 86 yards for a touchdown — and they had more than one chance to execute. When the Broncos held the Steelers to a fourth-and-12 from the 33-yard line, Chris Boswell attempted — and made — a 51-yard field goal to push the lead to 14 points. But Dre'Mont Jones was whistled for a leverage penalty, and the Steelers were able to continue their drive.

"It was obviously critical," Fangio said. "It was four points. We had our chances after that. We had a chance to pick it off, which would've wiped out their three. And then we got beat deep again on third down and long."

On third-and-10, Roethlisberger found Claypool up the middle for the 18-yard score.

Four extra points for Pittsburgh, on the board.

"Defensively, we've got to be better," Justin Simmons said. "We knew that they were emphasizing the big play. That's kind of been a big emphasis that they've been saying throughout the week. So we knew coming into the game that they were going to take their shots and we had to step up. More times than not, they made the plays and we didn't."

As the Broncos attempted their comeback, they faced a three-possession deficit. If just one of those missed opportunities had gone Denver's way, the final moments of the game may have looked far different.

Fangio, though, suggested those missed chances may have simply been emblematic of an offense that recorded just three first-half first downs and a defense that gave up three touchdown drives of at least 75 yards.

"There were some missed opportunities, but overall we just didn't play well enough," Fangio said.

And that, despite the late rally, was Fangio's message to his team; For as well as they played in the fourth quarter, they have to be better early.

"We've got to come in with a mindset to get better. We can't wait till the game is out of hand to have a sense of urgency," Bridgewater said. "We can't wait till we're down.

"We've just got to come out shooting the way we played in that fourth quarter. We'll give ourselves a chance to win a lot of games."

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