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Broncos battle after losing QB Drew Lock early but fall to Steelers, 26-21

Lock was driven into ground as he was sacked. Backup QB Jeff Driskel played well in second half. Courtland Sutton played despite shoulder injury, then hurt knee.
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) stands on the sideline after being injured during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Drew Lock has suffered a significant injury twice in his brief time as the Broncos’ quarterback.

Both times the injury occurred as he fell awkwardly while getting tripped up on a sack.

Although backup quarterback Jeff Driskel came in and played well, nearly rallying the Broncos to an upset victory against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, a final drive fell short and Denver fell 26-21 before a COVID-19 restricted gathering of zero fans at Heinz Field.

It was a thumb injury in preseason last year that cost Lock the first 11 games of the regular season. On Sunday at Heinz Field, Lock suffered a right throwing shoulder injury midway through the first quarter of the Broncos’ second regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It's what you've got to do is stay healthy as a quarterback,'' Lock said with his right arm in a sling as he met members of the Denver media via Zoom. "It goes back to my style of play. I'm out running, making plays when they're there. Both times it was close, maybe could have gotten out of it. And I won't sit here and tell you if I'm close to getting out of it and make a big play for us that I'm going to lay down and take a sack. I'm going to stay aggressive and try not have these awkward things happen.

"There could be a slight adjustment in what I think is a makeable escape. But I'm going to stick true to my guns, I'm going to stick to what got me here, what helped us win a couple games last year and what's going to help us win a couple games this year." 

As Lock stumbled, he was driven into the ground by pass rusher Bud DuPree, who hustled from the other side of the line. Lock fumbled the ball away, costing the Broncos a chance at a Brandon McManus field goal. Lock got up favoring his right shoulder and was soon pronounced out for the game with a right shoulder injury.

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (48) forces a fumble by Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers recovered the fumble. Drew Lock was injured on the play. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

A source tells 9News that Lock will be out a couple weeks, but this is a shoulder injury that truly needs an MRI exam reading, which will come tomorrow, before a conclusive diagnosis can be made.

In came backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, who struggled early but played well in the second half, leading the Broncos to scoring drives of a field goal and touchdown throws to tight end Noah Fant and running back Melvin Gordon.

"As a backup quarterback it's my job to be ready at all times,'' Driskel said. "You never want to see your guy go down. But that's my job to be ready to go. I prepared all week and my job is to give our team a chance to win and we didn't do that. Make a couple more plays here and there and it's a different ballgame."

That's pretty much been the case in too many of the 18 games the Broncos have played with Vic Fangio as their head coach. But after he was much-maligned for his game-management decisions late in a 16-14 loss to Tennessee last Monday night, Fangio coached his mask off.

Given the circumstances, the Broncos had no business being in this game against the heavily-favored Steelers. Denver played without the likes of star edge rusher Von Miller, top cornerback A.J. Bouye, co-starting running back Phillip Lindsay, sub linebacker Mark Barron and most of the game without No. 1 receiver Courtland Sutton and Lock and yet, the Broncos came back from deficits of 17-3 at halftime and 26-14 midway through the fourth quarter to give the Steelers a scare.

"We're thankful for the win today,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "Got to give a lot of credit to the Denver Broncos. They were a resilient bunch. They fought us the whole way. We helped them some.''

Driskel and the Denver defense had drawn within, 26-21 midway through the fourth quarter. A last-minute drive that reached the Steelers' 15-yard line, however, ended with Driskel getting sacked for the sixth time.

Driskel finished 18 of 34 for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns. His interception went through the hands of Courtland Sutton, who showed toughness by playing despite a painful shoulder injury but didn't play in the second half because what the team fears is a significant knee injury.

"I thought in lieu of all the circumstances, going against a good defense, I thought (Driske) did an admirable job,'' Fangio said. "He'll only get better if we have to continue with him."

Pittsburgh improved to 2-0 while the Broncos fell to 0-2. Denver plays at home next week against Tampa Bay and quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski. The team has sold out its 5,700 tickets that were made available for the game.

"That's going to be cool,'' said Fant, who had four catches for 57 yards, all in the second half. "From my perspective, Gronk's one of the greatest tight ends. Get to compete against him a little bit from the offensive side.'' 

Driskel had some nice completions to rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy before connecting with Sutton on a deep go route for a 45-yard gain late in the first half. Otherwise, Driskel struggled against the Steelers’ blitzing pass rush, taking four sacks in the second quarter. He took another sack off a first-and-goal at the 4 play early in the third quarter, but Driskel started getting a feel for the game in the second half.

"Going into this week we knew they're a really good front and have good players, and they find a way to get to the quarterback,'' Driskel said. "Yeah, some of those sacks are on me. I've got to move around a little bit. Got to get the ball out on time. But yeah the more reps you get, the more live action you get, the more comfortable you'll be." 

The Steelers, behind their own star veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, took a two touchdown lead into the intermission. Roethlisberger connected with Chase Claypool for an 84-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. He also directed a first quarter scoring drive that was capped with a 2-yard touchdown run by James Conner.

After the Broncos closed to within, 17-14, Roethlisberger answered with an impressive drive that ended with a scrambling, 28-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson.

A dropped snap in the end zone by Broncos punter Sam Martin gave Pittsburgh a safety and a 26-14 lead. But the Steelers missed a chance to put the game away when Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris forced Bennie Snell to fumble the ball away.

It was a particularly rough game for Broncos rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia. He dropped an interception in the end zone, then got run over by JuJu Smith-Schuster on an 18-yard screen catch-and-run that set up the Conner TD. Ojemudia also got beat by Claypool on the second touchdown and Johnson on Pittsburgh's third touchdown.

"Hey, if he's going to play corner in this league for a long time he's got to be able to come back from plays like that,'' Fangio said. "I think Michael's the right kind of guy to do that."

Said Ojemudia: “This was one game I can improve on. There’s a lot of plays for me out there. My name was asked to be called on a lot. It’s a long season and I’ve got to be better and I will be better."

Lock was 1 of 5 for 20 yards -- a first play completion to Sutton -- before he went down. Driskel was 6 of 14 for 117 yards in the first half but finished 18 of 34 for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Gordon had 49 yards rushing on 10 carries in the first half and finished with 70 yards on 19 carries.

Roethlisberger completed 29 of 41 for 311 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted by safety Justin Simmons. Steelers running back James Conner had 106 yards on 16 carries, with 59 yards coming with 1:30 left that clinched the win. 

Sutton plays

Watching Broncos No. 1 receiver Courtland Sutton practice this week, it’s a wonder he was able to play Sunday against the Steelers.

Sutton was attempting to catch passes below his neck during practice as it was clear he was still affected by the sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. Sutton and rookie speed receiver KJ Hamler are two weapons the Broncos didn’t have in week 1 against the Tennessee Titans.

Credit: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) is helped off the field after being injured after fumbling the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Pittsburgh.

Sutton had three catches for 66 yards at halftime, but his drop set up a Steeler field goal near the end of the half. He didn't play in the second half because of a knee injury. Hamler had a 9-yard run on an end around and three catches for 48 yards in his NFL debut. 

With Sutton and Hamler active, the Broncos de-activated 7th-round rookie receiver Tyrie Cleveland while fourth-round tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was inactive for a second straight game.

The Broncos called up running back LeVante Bellamy and outside linebacker Derrek Tuszka from their practice squad. Bellamy replaced the injured Phillip Lindsay – who may not return until Game 5 at New England – and was the No. 3 running back behind Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman and contributed on special teams. Tuszka was the No. 4 outside linebacker for a second consecutive week. He also played on special teams.

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Credit: 9NEWS