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'We're a couple of plays away': Broncos find themselves in position to win vs. Steelers, but mistakes prove too costly

The Broncos had no good reason to stick around.

They were on the road against an impressive Pittsburgh team. They had lost their young quarterback in the first quarter and their top receiver later in the game. In the weeks prior, they'd also suffered the losses of their All-Pro pass-rusher and Pro Bowl running back and cornerback.

And yet, they fought.

After falling behind 17-3 at halftime, the Broncos — led by reserve quarterback Jeff Driskel — made up ground during the third quarter with an 11-0 run and made the necessary stops to give themselves a chance at a game-winning drive.

"Our whole team — not just our defense — had great fight," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the loss. "Our defense, outside of three or four plays, played an admirable game. We gave up the long pass, but we shut them down a few times in the second half to allow us to come back and give us some time to do that. We didn't take advantage of our pick opportunity in the end zone, and they converted a third-and-long on their first drive that we could've stopped. I believe we should've stopped it, but we didn't. It was three, four or five plays on defense that cost us from having a really good game. I thought, like you said, the fight was great."

Again and again, they made plays that winning teams make. Justin Simmons had an interception. Kareem Jackson posted a third-down pass breakup. Melvin Gordon and Noah Fant added touchdowns, and Fant tacked on a key 22-yard reception late in the fourth quarter.

But for every solid play that suggested the Broncos could pull off an upset win, there was another that spelled their downfall.  

In the first quarter, the Broncos fumbled away a chance at a field goal and lost Drew Lock on the same play. Michael Ojemudia had a chance at an interception bounce off his hands, and Pittsburgh scored two plays later.

"You never want to see your guy go down, but at the end of the day, it's my job to be ready to go," Driskel said. "I've been preparing all week, and my job is to give the team a chance to win and we didn't do that. We've got to make a couple more plays here and there, and maybe it's a different ball game." 

Near the end of the first half, Courtland Sutton caught a 45-yard pass from Driskel but stumbled and couldn't break free for the score. Driskel was sacked on the next play, and the Broncos missed a 58-yard field goal. Sutton had a pass go off his hands on the ensuing drive, and Joe Haden picked it off to lead to a Steelers field goal.

On the drive that followed Simmons' interception, the Broncos faced first-and-goal from the 4-yard line and settled for a field goal.

Denver allowed 311 passing yards on the day, but 84 of those came on a single play when Chase Claypool beat Ojemudia.

"I had him the whole play," Ojemudia said. "I was running stride for stride, and at the last moment, he gained a little separation. I have to be better — even before the play — of knowing what they like to do."

As the Broncos drove down the field in the final minutes, they were in need of a touchdown, as a dropped snap on a punt led to a two-point safety that extended Pittsburgh's lead from 10 to 12 before the Broncos later cut it to five ahead of their final possession.

Then, following Fant's 22-yard reception, the Broncos couldn't punch the ball in. On the final offensive snap of the game, Terrell Edmunds came free to sack Jeff Driskel. Pittsburgh tallied seven sacks and 19 quarterback hits. 

"We've proven we can put ourselves in position to win against two really good teams — two teams that most people have picked to go to the playoffs," Fangio said. "We've got to avoid the sequences that happen. The first drive of the game, you get a nice drive going and we're in field-goal range. We get pushed out of it and we fumble it. We have the chance to hold them to a field goal, but they convert a third-and-long. We had a chance at an interception that we didn't make. Instead of being 3-0 in our favor at least, or 3-0 in their favor, we're down 7-0. Those types of sequences in a game have a major impact on the outcome of a game."

Simmons, who finished with eight tackles, a tackle for loss, two passes defensed and the interception, knows those big plays — those critical moments — must be decided by the Broncos' best players.

"We're a couple plays away, and we have to make those plays," Simmons said. "Talking about leadership, guys that are leaders on this team have to find ways to make those plays so that we can have the outcome that we want. It doesn't matter how ugly a game is, as long as we find a way to win. That's the biggest thing right [now]. You have to put it on the leaders of the team to find ways to close out games like that and make the plays where they need to be made. That's the biggest takeaway from it."

They'll get another chance next Sunday, as the 1-1 Buccaneers head to Empower Field at Mile High for a Week 3 matchup.

The Broncos will certainly be desperate to avoid an 0-3 start, even as their quarterback's health remains uncertain. They'll aim to maintain the takeaways and touchdowns while minimizing the crippling mistakes.

They've proven they are good enough to beat a playoff-caliber team. Now they just have to do it.

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