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.
WILL DENVER'S DEFENSE CONTINUE TO FLUSTER BEN ROETHLISBERGER?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a worthy foe for the Broncos over the years, as he's completed 69.4 percent of his passes and averaged 336 passing yards, 2.29 touchdowns, 1.7 interceptions and a 92.6 quarterback rating in seven career games against the Broncos. Early in the 2021 season, though, Roethlisberger has struggled to find success. The two-time Super Bowl champion has been sacked 10 times after being sacked 13 times all last season, and his yards per attempt are the lowest of any season in which he's played at least three games. Roethlisberger has also thrown touchdowns on just 2.4 percent of his passes, which is the lowest clip of his career. The 39-year-old quarterback has also battled injuries, as he did not practice Wednesday with a pectoral/hip injury before being upgraded to a full participant on Thursday and Friday.
After facing a Ravens offense that tests defenses in unique ways, the Broncos should have the chance to get after Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense in Week 5. Von Miller, who has sacked Roethlisberger four times in his career (including playoffs), could add to his total and keep pace with the NFL's sack leaders. And after failing to record a takeaway against the Ravens, the Broncos' secondary could get back on the board against Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback has thrown the fourth most interceptions through four weeks. Denver's defense could find success away from those big plays, too. If Roethlisberger continues to attempt short passes, the Broncos' defense could rally to the ball and prevent Pittsburgh from making big plays.
That said, Roethlisberger still has the ability to make the Broncos pay. He tossed a perfect 45-yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson against the Packers in Week 4, and he led the Steelers to a road win over Buffalo in Week 1.
"We just have to play good," Fangio said Wednesday. "Play our style of defense, play good ourselves, because he's still really good. The one thing is that there's a narrative out there that he's gone down, and I don't see that. I've been watching this guy a long time. He's still capable of doing everything he's always done. He throws a great deep ball and has good pocket feel. I don't buy into that narrative at all."
CAN DENVER'S COVERAGE UNITS LIMIT ANOTHER DANGEROUS RETURNER?
The Broncos' coverage units on special teams have yet to find their stride in 2021, as the team allowed a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Jaguars and a 42-yard return against Baltimore that set up an end-of-half field goal.
"We seem to have one play a game that pulls it down," Fangio said Monday. "We had a good game going special teams-wise and then they break the punt return for a long gain that gives them the three points there at the half. That's a good question — obviously one we have to fix. We've been trying."
Against the Steelers, the task doesn't get any easier. Pittsburgh's Ray-Ray McCloud ranks third in the league in punt return average with 10.8 yards per return, and he holds the same slot on kickoff returns as he's averaged 26.6 yards per return.
In a road game in which every possession will be critical, the Broncos cannot afford to give Pittsburgh free yardage. Baltimore's return in Week 4 pushed the lead to two possessions, and it felt like a momentum-shifting play. If Denver's coverage units can live up to their potential, it would help the Broncos take a step toward a win.