A Washington Post headline earlier this week read, “The new guide to NFL defense: Don’t worry about giving up big plays, just create your own.”
It would appear that Joe Woods and his Broncos defense took that literally in its 24-17 triumph over the mighty Big Ben and his high-powered offense.
“That was huge,” head coach Vance Joseph said, noting the game plan was to keep Antonio Brown from running away with the game. “We knew ‘19,’ Schuster, was going to make some plays obviously, but the plan was not to let ‘84’ (Brown) beat us. I’ve been in games where he’s beaten me single-handedly. The plan was to take him away, stop the run game as best we could with a seven-man box and just deal with ‘19’ the best we could.”
And it worked.
The Broncos’ defense gave up more than 500 yards of total offense, including a 97-yard touchdown by Juju Smith-Schuster, but it held the Steelers to just two touchdowns and a field goal in spite of it.
“You just have to limit them. ‘Big Ben’ is a Hall of Famer. He is going to throw it 40 or 50 times. We knew it was coming. We couldn’t give up the big plays,” said Bradley Roby, who contributed his own big play by creating a fumble that was recovered by Darian Stewart in the third quarter. “For the most part, we did that today.”
Bend, don’t break.
In the Steelers’ first drive, Roethlisberger & Co. had the ball for 11 plays, including three first downs, before stalling at the Broncos’ 30-yard line due to three incomplete passes and getting stuffed by a blocked field goal.
That defensive momentum set a tone for the game - Broncos may give up a big play, maybe even many big plays, but they were not going to give up many points.
And they were going to get turnovers.
Four of them, in fact - each one with dire consequences for Pittsburgh and new life for Denver.
As the first quarter closed with the Broncos ahead 3-0 but the Steelers threatening on Denver’s 24-yard line, the first play of the second quarter was a “play-of-the-game” hit by Will Parks to not only prevent Xavier Grimble from scoring a touchdown but to knock the ball out in the process and give Denver the ball on a touchback.
Bend, don’t break.
On the Broncos’ next drive, the offense stalled once again but not without taking time off the clock and giving the defense a rest so it could keep Big Ben to just a field goal on its next offensive attempt.
When the Broncos were up again, they made the most of it as Phillip Lindsay broke away for a 32-yard run and four plays later tight end Matt LaCosse capped a 17-yard catch with a 10-yard touchdown, his first as a pro.
“I am the fourth read on that,” LaCosse said after the game, calling his TD a “little surreal.” “The ball is not necessarily supposed to come my way. It was nice because I found a little pocket. Case got through his reads really fast, came to me, and saw how close I was to the sideline. It was pretty awesome.”
Justin Simmons noted that the defense made a point this week of emphasizing the need to get the ball back so the Broncos’ offense had many opportunities.
“Especially an offense like ours who can be explosive, who can make those deep passes, who has an effective running game,” Simmons said. “We just need to get them more touches, and we know that. We know if we give them the ball more, more often than not, we’ll be able to win games. That’s what happened today.”
For Broncos fans, it was exciting, but nerve-wracking. Bend-don’t-break comes at a cost.
Up 10-3, the Broncos defense/special teams got caught just before halftime. Holding the Steelers on third-and-goal, confusion before the field goal allowed the Steelers to flawlessly execute a fake field goal and tie the game at 10 heading into the locker room.
With neither team able to score on their first possessions of the second half, Broncos appeared to put the Steelers in a tough position on their own three-yard line...until a deep shot over the middle to Juju Smith-Schuster appeared to break the Broncos defense as Roby got caught out of position.
But the defense was only bending a little further.
“The safety was leaning to ‘84’ and helping Chris [Harris Jr.]. I really should have played off coverage because I was in zero, but I wanted to press,” Roby acknowleged. “It is those little mistakes that always kind of get you at corner. After that happened, I was like, ‘I have to do something to win us this game.’”
So he did.
But not before Christ Harris Jr. could add his name to the highlight list. Intended for Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger threw into the hands of No. 25 who scampered 15 yards to keep the score at just 17-10 and a new chance for the Broncos to tie it up.
Two plays later - both huge catches by Emmanuel Sanders - the Broncos were back in the hunt, 17-17.
“You’ve just got to keep battling,” said Sanders, who finished with 7 catches for 86 yards and a TD. “Eventually, I feel like everybody knows, everybody who watches football knows, we’ve got a good football team. We’ve got great players. We’ve got a new quarterback and a new system, and it’s going to take time for us to grow. I’ll tell you what, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction where we need to go to get the job done. So far, it’s shown.”
Steelers CB Joe Haden on the Broncos: "They did a really good job in disguising a lot of their plays. Hiding tight ends and things like that. The running back did a really good job in the running game, finding holes and hitting them. A lot of credit to them. They did a good job.”— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) November 26, 2018
Finally after a stalled drive from each team, it was Roby’s turn to make up for his earlier mistake.
A short pass from Roethlisberger to James Conner was bringing the Steelers offense to the Broncos’ 23-yard line.
Until Roby hit the ball while making a tackle and Darian Stewart recovered. But it was the Broncos offense that reaped the reward, getting the ball back to start the fourth quarter and a chance to take the lead.
Bend, don’t break.
“I think it’s crazy that the fumble kind of happened the same way it did Super Bowl year,” Roby said. “I was getting blocked in the back and tried to lunge at a guy, and it came out. I was happy about that.”
Perhaps the happiest guy was Lindsay, who sliced and diced - and even trash-talked - his way through defenders all the way down the field, eventually leading the offensive charge into the end zone for what would be the game-winning touchdown.
“That’s how it goes,” he said about taking advantage of Steelers’ mistakes. “That what a good football team does, they take advantage of the opportunities given to them.”
And the Broncos did so one more crucial time.
After an incomplete pass on 1st-and-goal from the three-yard line - care of Harris Jr. - followed by a run stuff on second down, the Broncos defense pulled off the ultimate bend with an interception in the end zone thanks to Shelby Harris getting pushed back - out of position for his original play but into the perfect position to take Big Ben’s big comeback away.
“I actually did not do what I was supposed to do, but it ended up working out pretty well,” Harris said after the game. “[Being] able to be in the game at that moment is huge. Great teams make plays. Anyone could have made it, but I was lucky to be in there and make it. But the main thing is the outcome.”
Bending perhaps, but never breaking.
“The big play there was obviously Chris’ play in the slot, covering the inverted fade. The next play with the run, hitting the running game, and the third-down play, Shelby made it,” Joseph said of the defensive stand. “Defensively, again, we gave some yards up, but in the critical moments, we made plays to win. That’s what’s important.”