DENVER -- The Broncos' defense wasn't happy with the way it started the second half.
But it more than made up for allowing two long scoring drives in the third quarter by rising to the occasion with the game on the line in the closing minutes.
The Steelers opened the second half with a 16-play drive that covered 64 yards and took 8:55 off the clock, giving Pittsburgh a 13-7 lead. Though the Broncos were able to force a field goal instead of a touchdown, they were disappointed that they repeatedly failed to get off the field on third down.
"It's not one of those situations you want to put yourself in," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "We've got to find a way to get off the field on third down."
Denver's offense responded in a hurry, as quarterback Peyton Manning needed just two plays – a nine-yard completion to Eric Decker and 71-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas -- to find pay dirt. The quick score put the Broncos back on top, but it also brought the defenders off the sideline after just 36 seconds of game time had elapsed.
The Broncos appeared to force a three-and-out, but an unnecessary roughness penalty kept Denver on the field, and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made the defense pay the price.
Three plays later, he found Heath Miller for a 23-yard pickup on third-and-18. Pittsburgh eventually finished the 14-play, 80-yard march on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Mike Wallace. By the series' conclusion, Denver trailed 19-14 and its defense had been on the field for more than 15 of the first 16 minutes of the second half.
But the Broncos' D did anything but fade down the stretch. Instead, it dominated the rest of the way, highlighted by a game-changing pick-six by cornerback Tracy Porter.
After a touchdown and two-point conversion by the offense made it 22-19 Broncos, the defense forced a three-and-out, setting the offense up for a field goal that stretched the lead to 25-19 with 3:03 remaining.
"We just started playing better," Bailey said. "The offense kind of gave us a little relief moving the ball down the field, we got our legs up under us and just went out there and did what we had to do, plain and simple."
The Broncos eliminated any chance for a last-minute comeback on the second play of the Steelers' ensuing drive. Porter perfectly timed his break on Roethlisberger's pass intended for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, making the interception in stride on his way to a 43-yard return for a touchdown.
"I had opportunities earlier, got my hands on a ball and didn't secure the catch, but this one I made the play," Porter said. "I'm just thankful no one ran up and tried to catch me from behind."
Down 31-19 with time winding down, the Steelers' last-gasp possession went backwards, with linebacker Von Miller sacking Roethlisberger on first and third down and fellow linebacker Wesley Woodyard sealing the deal by dropping Roethlisberger on the Steelers' final play of the night.
"Big boys lick their chops when teams are in passing situations," Bailey said of the front seven's dominant finish. "They were ready for that."
From there, all that was left standing between the Broncos and a season-opening victory was an easy kneel for quarterback Peyton Manning.
"It felt good," Woodyard said of his sack. "Especially to seal the deal as a team victory. It felt great to go out there and get that sack for my teammates."