5 Biggest Takeaways from Denver Broncos' Week 15 Loss to the Steelers
The Denver Broncos lost another game on Sunday as they fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27. This is their fourth loss of the year and the second time the team has lost back-to-back games this season.
While the Broncos are losing games—and struggling to score in the second half—the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15 and have now won eight games in a row. The Chiefs are now 9-5 and only one game behind the Broncos’ 10-4 record.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak knows the standings are now incredibly tight in the division.
“Kansas City is playing great. They won seven or eight in a row. They’re playing exceptionally. We lost two in a row right here. They were really tough games that I thought we should have won, but that’s the NFL.”
Kubiak summarized, “It’s on to Cincinnati and a big challenge next Monday. We’ll look forward to that. We have to have a good week.”
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Broncos’ Week 15 loss to the Steelers.
Emmanuel Sanders Starts Hot
The Broncos offense didn’t struggle in the first half against the Steelers. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was one of the sparks for the Broncos offense, and he looked dominant over the first two quarters of the game.
In the first half, Sanders gashed the Steelers defense for eight catches, 139 yards receiving, 24 yards rushing and one touchdown. Sanders was blowing by the Steelers defense to get open deep. He was also running routes over the middle and taking big hits to move the chains. Sanders, a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2010, looked like he was going to be the most dominant player on the field early on.
Sanders felt good coming back to the place where he started his pro career.
“It felt good, obviously the city of Pittsburgh, the Rooney’s, Mike Tomlin—they have been so good to me. They drafted me in the third round. I am forever thankful for that. It felt good to be back in front of Steelers Nation waving the towels, but I wish the result would have been better.”
Sanders' season has been a bit up and down, and his production has certainly been inconsistent with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. In order to consistently move the ball, the Broncos should continue to feature Sanders as much as possible moving forward.
Chris Harris Struggles
It has been more than two calendar years since Chris Harris has surrendered a touchdown pass, but on Sunday he didn’t just give up one—he gave up two to Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. With Harris trailing in coverage, Brown racked up an incredible 16-catch, 189-yard performance against the Broncos.
Brown used his guile and route-running ability to get open on underneath routes. He also used his speed to get open on vertical routes, and Brown was able to turn around Harris more than once.
Harris had some very strong words—about himself—after the game.
“We were supposed to win this game, the offense did enough. They scored enough points in the first half. This is on the defense. We cannot let them come back. I cannot give up two touchdowns in a half. That’s on me.”
Harris is one of the best corners in the game, but he had a bad game on Sunday. He should be able to bounce back moving forward. The elite corners play with short memories from play to play and game to game. Harris was a liability on Sunday, but he’ll likely go back to being an incredible asset in the next game.
Ronnie Hillman Ineffective
The Broncos haven’t been able to run the ball effectively since their Week 12 win over the New England Patriots, when C.J. Anderson had more than 100 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Ronnie Hillman is the team’s starter, and he has been for most of the regular season. However, he hasn’t been productive in that role over the last few weeks.
Against the Steelers, Hillman could only muster 48 yards on 14 carries (3.8 yards per carry). He also coughed up the ball early in this game, and the fumble was recovered by the Steelers. Hillman had 42 yards rushing on nine carries in the first half, but in the third and fourth quarter he only accounted for six rushing yards on five carries.
Kubiak gave some thoughts about what went wrong in the second half.
“We walked out of the locker room and got a nice first down. After that I think we had four holding calls in the next nine plays. Nobody has a chance when you do that to yourself. It was penalties and lack of execution.”
Kubiak further explained, “I think that we executed really well in the first half—where to go, here or there. I just don’t think we executed the same way in the second half. Obviously we ran the ball pretty well in the first half. The second half on two of our first three runs, we got holding penalties. Like I said, we hurt ourselves.”
With Anderson battling through another ankle injury, the team should keep Hillman in the starting lineup. They’ll need him to be more productive on the ground if they want to achieve balance and keep opponents on their heels. Hillman has great speed, but he goes down too easily on contact. He’s also not much of a receiver out of the backfield, and the team doesn’t seem to trust him as much as they do Anderson when it comes to pass-protection ability.
If the Broncos are to get back on the winning track, an effective Hillman would greatly help.
Brock Osweiler Fails in Crunch Time
Osweiler came out firing against the Steelers, and his first-half performance was quite good. Osweiler was 12-of-17 passing for 214 yards and three touchdowns. In addition to his production as a passer, Osweiler also scrambled three times for 14 yards and one rushing touchdown in the opening half.
The Broncos scored on four straight possessions in the first half, but they couldn’t come close to matching that success after halftime. The Steelers scored 21 unanswered points while the Broncos offense stalled and failed to get back on the scoreboard.
After the game, Osweiler revealed his thoughts about the second half.
“Nothing really felt different. We just couldn’t get into a rhythm for some reason. I think you have to give credit where credit is due. The Steelers and their coaching staff made some great halftime adjustments. Those guys on the field played a great second half for the Steelers.”
This may have been the final start for Osweiler. Peyton Manning resumed practicing this week, and the team may decide to go back to the future Hall of Fame quarterback in Week 16. The Broncos play on Monday Night Football at home against the Cincinnati Bengals, and they may decide that Manning gives them the best chance to win.
Drops Plague the Broncos Once Again
The Broncos have an issue with dropping passes, and that problem came up again on Sunday—at incredibly crucial times. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had a key dropped pass late in the game. That gives him 10 drops so far this year, a number that leads all receivers in the NFL this season.
In addition to Thomas, tight end Vernon Davis also had a crucial drop in the fourth quarter. Just like last week, Davis let the team down on a potential reception that could have moved the chains and kept a crucial drive alive. Davis was targeted only three times on Sunday, and he only hauled in one pass for five yards.
Osweiler knows he’s got to react against defenses who get to him quickly.
“The game flies—when you’re on the field it’s very fast. Those windows close very quickly. Defensive backs are very talented in this league, same with defensive lineman. You think you have some time then before you know it there’s some color in your face.”
Osweiler continued, “So, that’s one of those things I’ll watch on the tape. I think it’s a big learning curve for me to decide when to take off, when to throw it down the field and when it’s time to throw it away. That’s something that I will learn while watching this tape.”
Dropped passes have already cost this team dearly. Continuing toward the postseason, this might be the ultimate issue the team needs to fix if they want to compete for a Super Bowl title in 2015.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database.