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Starting Off Strong


DENVER --The Broncos offense wasn't on the field for long during Sunday's season-opener at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

In fact, the group saw just 36 seconds of action in the third quarter, and the Pittsburgh Steelers won the overall time-of-posession battle by more than 10 minutes.

But when quarterback Peyton Manning and the offense were on the field, they capitalized en route to a 31-19 win on Sunday Night Football in front of the fourth-largest home crowd in team history.

"We thought it was important when we got the ball back, we had to be efficient," Manning said.

After two first-quarter punts, Britton Colquitt didn't see the field again except to hold for kicker Matt Prater. The offense closed each of its remaining six drives with either a score or a kneel-down to close the first and second halves.

Pittsburgh got on the board first in the second quarter, as a long punt return by Antonio Brown set the Steelers up with prime field position at the Denver 38-yard line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers offense all the way to the 3-yard line, but the Denver defense held thanks to a leaping pass breakup by cornerback Tracy Porter, one of his game-high five breakups on the day.

The Broncos responded to the field goal by driving 80 yards down the field for an answer. Manning completed 6-of-7 passes on the drive, which was capped off by a 7-yard Knowshon Moreno run to give Denver its first lead, 7-3.

Pittsburgh closed the half with a drive that featured four third-down conversions, the last of which was a 4-yard touchdown strike from Roethlisberger to tight end Heath Miller.

Third-down conversions were a theme for Pittsburgh throughout the game -- the Steelers converted on 11 of their 19.

"Roethlisberger was awesome on third down," Manning said. "I certainly have seen that before throughout his career. He does a great job of extending plays. You get out to warm up, kind of getting ready on third-and-15, and he converts them, and you go back and sit down again. Yeah, obviously, it was frustrating."

The Steelers' two second-quarter drives took nine minutes and 38 seconds off the clock. The club nearly matched that with one drive in the third quarter -- a 16-play, 74-yard drive that took 8:55 of game time to start the second half.

But the defense held strong, forcing a field goal to keep it a one-possession game -- 13-7.

"We were tested against Seattle (in the preseason) with a really long drive – a (14)-play drive up here in the altitude," Derek Wolfe recalled. "It really wasn't a shock to us. Peyton does it to us all the time like that in practice, so it's nothing for us."

And the offense was ready to strike when it finally got on the field.

"We came in (at halftime) and made some adjustments," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who led all receivers with 110 yards and a touchdown. "We saw some things they were doing and let No. 18 take it over. It just kept clicking and clicking."

It started quickly, as Manning hit Thomas on a quick screen pass that turned into a 71-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown to retake the lead, 14-13.

The play, which finished off a two-play scoring drive, was reminiscent of Thomas' 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown to send the Steelers home in the Wild Card Round of the 2011 AFC Playoffs.

"It wasn't quite the same, but it was a good one," Thomas smiled.

The touchdown was Manning's first as a Bronco, and 400th of his career. The four-time NFL MVP joined Brett Favre and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to throw 400 touchdowns in a career, and Manning did so in fewer games than either of the other two signal callers.

That two-play drive was the extent of the Denver offense's work in the third quarter, as Pittsburgh held the ball for 14:24 of the 15 minutes in the frame. But the fourth quarter belonged to the Broncos.

Roethlisberger capped off another scoring drive -- which spanned the third and fourth quarters -- with a 3-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Mike Wallace, but the ensuing two-point conversion was unsuccessful thanks to defensive tackle Justin Bannan, who tipped Roethlisbger's pass at the line.

At that point, Pittsburgh led 19-14, but the Steelers wouldn't find paydirt again.

Manning and the Broncos offense responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive highlighted by a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Matthew Willis, an 11-yard connection with tight end Jacob Tamme and a 17-yard strike to wide receiver Eric Decker that put the ball at the 1-yard line. The Broncos never even faced a third down, and Manning hit Tamme for a 1-yard touchdown strike -- followed by a pass to running back Willis McGahee for a two-point conversion -- to retake the lead, 22-19.

"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," cornerback Champ Bailey said.

The defense immediately forced a three-and-out, and Manning and the offense got right back to work, driving 51 yards down the field for a Prater field goal to extend the lead.

Cornerback Tracy Porter essentially sealed the win when he jumped a Roethlisberger pass intended for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown.

"Tracy is a man that steps up and he owns up to his word," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "Before that series, he was on the sideline and was like, 'Defense, I owe you guys a play, I'm going to come back and make something happen.' Man, he came out there with that pick-six and everybody was so excited to see him score."

Von Miller and Woodyard combined for three sacks to officially put the Steelers away on the ensuing drive. Manning, who completed 73.1 percent of his passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, took a knee to cement the season-opening victory.

"I think this team is still forming its identity," Manning said. "As you're feeling yourself out, feeling the team out, when you can get a win in that process, that's a nice thing. Like I said, we've got an extremely tough schedule, going on the road (next week) to Atlanta, but it'll be nice to go in there 1-0 as opposed to 0-1."

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