They say the third pre-season game is the closest you get to an actual NFL game. If that's the case, the Broncos will be just fine this season, as they went into the half with a 17-3 lead courtesy of an Andre' Goodman pick-six.
Let me just start this off by saying that this game was a real treat to attend. I know a lot of people don't like the pre-season because the wins and losses don't matter in the long run, but I know one thing for sure--these players care about winning them. That was evident Sunday night, as the Broncos took a prime time stage against arguably the most beloved franchise in the history of football.
It was a beautiful night at INVESCO Field at Mile High. A cool breeze coupled with a light rain follwed by a giant rainbow over the stadium painted the perfect backdrop for what would turn out to be the Broncos first victory of the 2010 campaign.
Following a Daniel Sepulveda kickoff that went out of bounds resulting in great field position for the Broncos, Denver marched 60 yards down the field in eight plays for a touchdown. LenDale White, who will serve a suspension for the first quarter of the season, started the game for the Broncos, and capped off the drive with his signature play: A goal line touchdown.
Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a scoring drive of his own to answer the Broncos, but a seven play, 66-yard drive stalled in Bronco territory, and Pittsburgh was forced to settle for a field goal.
A 39 yard field goal by Matt Prater was the only score of this defensive half. That is, until Andre' Goodman said, "No, thank you," to a promising Steeler drive. Goodman broke up a pass from quarterback Dennis Dixon, who threw an out route to Mike Wallace. The tipped ball fell into Goodman's hands, and he proceeded to take it 77 yards for a score with only 11 seconds remaining in the half.
That pick-six put the Broncos ahead 17-3 going into the locker room.
The only score of the third quarter was a Matt Prater field goal from 29 yards out. The second and third quarters seemed to be great field position battles with no team willing to break. Still, the Broncos had a very comfortable 20-3 lead going into the final period of play.
The fourth quarter was one filled with fireworks, both literally and figuratively.
The Steelers started off the scoring after a Tim Tebow interception resulted in great field position, and it only took them two plays and five yards to get a touchdown on the board. Rookie tailback Jonathan Dwyer found room to his right, and walked into the end zone.
Following the interception, Tebow came right back out and led the Broncos on a five play, 74-yard drive culminating in a three yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Eric Decker. That touchdown connection put the Broncos up 27-10, but the Steelers were not done fighting.
Andre Brown caught a seven yard touchdown pass from Charlie Batch to cap off an 87 yard drive. Batch only threw four passes, and although the stat line states otherwise, he completed all four of them.
He just completed one to the wrong team.
On Pittsburgh's next drive, Batch and his receiver had some sort of mis-communication, and Batch's pass flew right into the hands of Denver seventh round pick Syd'Quan Thompson, who took the interception 48 yards to the house.
The Broncos forced Pittsburgh to punt on their final series, and after a long return by Thompson, they tried three run plays inside the red zone and ran out the clock.
Play of the Game
Andre' Goodman's interception return was a huge momentum shifter. It gave the Broncos a healthy lead, and forced the Steelers to pass more than the likely would have otherwise, though they didn't abandon the run completely. Goodman not only broke up the pass, he kept his eye on it, caught it, and ran it back 77 yards for the score. It was simply outstanding.
Players of the Game
Offense: Matthew Willis, WR
It was hard to choose between Willis and Brandon Lloyd. Both players have made a great case for themselves this offseason, and Willis has been extremely impressive the last five months. He finished the game with three catches for 55 yards, and he also had 30 kick return yards.
Defense: Robert Ayers, DE/OLB
Ayers was all over the place. He had two sacks to go along with four tackles, and he really provided a spark to the Bronco pass rush. Ayers had one sack from the nose guard position, where he simply tossed an interior lineman out of the way on his way to quarterback Dennis Dixon. I can't help but think of what he and Dumervil would have been together this season.
Other Player Notes
Perrish Cox, CB
Cox had one of the better interceptions I have seen in a long while when he picked off Dennis Dixon in the end zone to prevent one of two promising Pittsburgh drives. Add that to his three tackles, and it was a solid night for Cox, though every defensive back struggled at times.
Joe Mays, LB
It was one drive in particular, one of the later ones. Mays looked like he was shot out of a cannon on every snap. He had a couple of tackles and a half sack, but he played with some ferocity, and I have to say I liked it.
Jarvis Moss, LB
He will not appear on the stat sheet, but I saw something from Jarvis that I have never before seen. He lined up across from the center, standing up, almost like a standing nose guard. He faked a blitz, and when the ball was snapped, he cracked helmets with the Pittsburgh center. I don't know what effect it had on the play, but I could hear the crack all the way up at my seat in section 506, row 13.
Syd'Quan Thompson, CB/RS
As much attention as is paid to Perrish Cox for being a "steal" where the Broncos got him, virtually the same amount of attention is NOT paid to Thompson. He was a fantastic collegiate player, and the Broncos stole him in the seventh round. He showed off his quickness and skills tonight, potentially earning himself a roster spot with a pick six, some fine defensive plays, and a 62-yard punt return. He finished the game with 84 return yards and a 48 yard interception returned for a touchdown.
Lance Ball and LenDale White, RB's
Ball had the longest play of the day for the Broncos' offense when he burst through a wave of linemen and into the open for a 43 yard gain. He wasn't overly exciting aside from that, rushing for just 35 yards on nine carries in addition to his big run, but four yards per carry in the NFL is more than acceptable. Ball could be auditioning for another team as he got to play almost the entire game.
LenDale White started the game for the Broncos, and had a couple of solid runs in addition to the Broncos' first touchdown of the game. Some have speculated that White is clearly a bubble player, but I think he's more of a lock than some of the guys who have been here all offseason. He's a talented short yardage back, and the Broncos had a void to be filled there. He will wind up as the team's third running back when he returns from suspension.
Britton Colquitt, P; Matt Prater, K
The Broncos' special teams unit was absolutely fantastic. Major props to Mike Priefer for putting together a great game plan and to his unit for executing to near perfection. Colquitt punted four times with an average of 56 yards, which to me is outstanding. With a total of 224 punting yards on the night, the Steelers were only able to generate 20 return yards. On four punts, that's an average of 51 yards the Broncos gained in field position. Colquitt could turn out to be one of the best offseason moves the Broncos made if he punts like that.
Prater nailed both of his field goals, hit all four extra points, and had touchbacks on five out of seven kicks. It's no coincidence the Broncos doubled up the Steelers with special teams play like they had on Sunday night. Again, well done to Mike Priefer's unit.
Brady Quinn, QB
I have officially become frustrated with Quinn, if I wasn't already before. He takes too long to make throws, plain and simple. He and Charlie Batch both completed one pass to a Bronco player. Though Quinn only threw two passes, he didn't only drop back twice. He was sacked multiple times, and is very indecisive. I realize it's only his third game in this system, but Tim Tebow seems to have a much better grasp than Quinn does at this point. He lacks confidence, which is really disappointing. I hope he figures it out.
An All-Pro with a side of Chris Kuper would suffice. The Broncos don't have tons of trouble with pass protection despite their injury problems, but if all goes according to pre-season, I don't expect them to have anything better than the 20th ranked rushing offense, regardless if Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter are healthy.
Big Play Prevention
This is pretty self-explanatory, but the Steelers broke quite a few big plays on Sunday night. Broken plays that should have resulted in positive plays for the Broncos were turned into huge Steeler gains. I hate those kinds of plays when they are against my team. The Broncos need to finish better on a more consistent basis, which I think they can.
I question why this kid was stealing snaps from Alphonso Smith. If Smith is truthfully that bad, then get him off the team. Trade him for a conditional pick. IF that's the case. If not, Smith should be getting any and every opportunity to fail or succeed while the Broncos decide what to do with him. In the meantime, Vaughn had a rough outing. He gave one receiver a 15 yard cushion on a particular play, and the Steelers nearly converted a third and long.
He simply wasn't overly impressive. He didn't allow a deep touchdown or anything, but he didn't make any notable defensive plays, and I don't recall seeing him return any kickoffs.
Well, the inevitable has happened. Tim Tebow threw his first NFL touchdown pass, and it was a beauty, but we will get to that in a moment. Tebow's first drive included a nice pass to Brandon Lloyd, but he followed it up by missing Eddie Royal on an out pattern that would have given the Broncos a first down.
Tebow's next drive included two passes to Matthew Willis for 31 yards, but the impressive drive was cut short after he couldn't hook up with Eric Decker on a medium distance pass.
Tebow also threw a pick six, where he seemed to simply overthrow Britt Davis. It was really a bad throw, not unlike the one Kyle Orton threw earlier in the game. He didn't really let it affect him, though.
The rookie came out on the next drive, and threw a 24 yard strike to Willis. After the big play by Ball, he finished the drive with a fantastic pass off his back foot to Eric Decker. It was a perfectly thrown ball to the corner of the end zone, on Decker's outside shoulder where only he could get to it. A great throw by Tebow, and just how you want your quarterback to come back after throwing a bad pick.
It should also be noted that Tebow took a good majority of snaps from under center, which I thought was significant. It really stood out to me that the coaching staff was being intentional about putting him under center, and he did a nice job. He finished the game completing five of his 10 passes for 72 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
I had an absolutely fantastic time at this game. The Broncos have made vast improvements over the offseason, and when the starters left the field for good it was 17-3 in favor of the home team. That is what I like to see. It's also good to see our backups coming around. Again, nothing looks great right now, but this team is putting it together. I like what I have seen so far, and I will be heading to the Metrodome on Thursday to watch the Broncos' final pre-season game against the Minnesota Vikings.
**This was all from memory (aside from the hard stats), so feel free to share your thoughts/observations if I missed something of note