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Bridgewater nearly leads heroic comeback, but Steelers hang on, beat Broncos 27-19

Broncos cornerback Kyle Fuller had a rough game, but Denver offense had just three first downs at intermission.
Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) hauls in a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with Denver Broncos cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) defending during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. Johnson took the ball in for a touchdown. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

PITTSBURGH — Teddy Bridgewater had not made a mistake all season. He had missed some passes, sure, and taken a sack here and there.

But a major blunder like an interception or a lost fumble? Not one through four games and 59 minutes into a fifth. After Bridgewater calmly converted all his fourth downs, after he threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and had first and goal with less than a 1 minute remaining and the Broncos trailing by a touchdown and 2-point conversion, it sure seemed like Bridgewater would tie up the Pittsburgh Steelers and complete the incredible comeback.

“Yeah, I thought so, too,'' Bridgewater said in a postgame interview with 9News. "It’s tough to end the game like that but just the fight I saw in this team was very impressive. If we can just come out with that mindset at the beginning of games with that fight instead of scrambling around and trying to win at the end of games.”

On fourth and goal at the 3 with 17 seconds remaining, Bridgewater had no choice. Even though he saw Courtland Sutton, who had a big game, was covered, Bridgewater couldn't eat it or throw it away. He had to throw it. 

Credit: Drew Litton for 9NEWS

Steelers cornerback James Pierre intercepted it and home-team Pittsburgh hung on for a 27-19 win here on a gorgeous October Sunday afternoon near the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

The Broncos had been 8 of 8 on fourth down conversions this season until their final play. Teddy was terrific again, at least from the point after his team fell behind 24-6. But to come back from 24-6 was too come up short.

“He did,'' said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "The whole team came up short. We have to play better from start to finish and not wait til the fourth quarter.’’

For the second time in as many road games, the Broncos gave up a game-opening long touchdown pass off the first series of the game.

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) celebrates his touchdown with fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Both times, it was cornerback Kyle Fuller was left by himself and got beat. This time it was Diontae Johnson who caught a 50-yard heave from Ben Roethlisberger for the quick touchdown.

Unlike the previous road game at Jacksonville, where Fuller got beat early by Marvin Jones, the Broncos had not caught by halftime. Or in the third quarter. The Steelers picked on Fuller again to set up a second touchdown, and Roethlisberger threw another scoring strike to Chase Claypool, the difference in Pittsburgh holding off a furious Bridgewater comeback.

Make no mistake, Fuller had a tough game.

“He did,'' Fangio told 9News from inside the locker room. "He gave up some balls. They went after him. And then late in the fourth quarter got another one in there (22 yards to Diontae Johnson).”

Later, in his postgame press conference, Fangio delivered an even harsher critique of Fuller's play.

"He got beat. He had a bad day,'' Fangio said bluntly.

To the Broncos and Fuller's credit, he faced media questions afterwards.

"Very disappointing,'' he said.

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) hauls in a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with Denver Broncos cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) defending during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. Johnson took the ball in for a touchdown. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Even in good times, Fuller is a man of few words. At least he was a man and gave a few words after a tough time.

"Short memory,'' Fuller said when asked how he moves on. "And have a good week of preparation."

Down 24-6 entering the fourth quarter, Bridgewater threw two touchdowns and had first and goal at the 9 for a potential tying score, but his desperation throw in the end zone with 11 seconds remaining was picked off.

Bridgewater converted three 4th downs on a 14-play drive to start the comeback, including on his 2-yard touchdown flip to Kendall Hinton with 10:15 remaining to bring the Broncos within two scores, 24-13.

Bridgewater then threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Sutton just inside the 6-minute mark to bring the Broncos to 24-19. At that point, Bridgewater had seven touchdown throws and no interceptions until his final throw pick.

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback James Pierre (42) breaks up a pass intended for Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. The Steelers won 27-19. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Sutton finished with 7 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Not bad for someone who had to pass a pregame test because of a sprained ankle suffered in practice Friday. No. 2 receiver Tim Patrick added 7 catches for 89 yards and rookie running back Javonte Williams had 61 yards on 8 carries -- 49 coming on one play -- while Bridgewater finished 24 of 38 for 288 yards -- 205 yards coming after the Broncos fell behind 24-6 with 2:41 left in the third quarter and 177 yards in the fourth quarter alone -- and two touchdowns before throwing that final play pick.

One weapon the Broncos didn't use was tight end Noah Fant, who was used mostly as a blocker until the fourth quarter. He finished with three catches for 20 yards.

"They chose to protect the pocket with him, especially on those possession downs, if you go down and look at third downs, oftentimes he was in the core and off the ball and we identified that as protection first,'' explained Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "So he wasn't getting out clean. And so you've got to make decisions from time to time, and they came into this game with a quarterback that was coming out of the protocol and they got sacked five times last week. I think they got seven times last time they were here. So they made some decisions; we expected them to and so that comes at a cost. It's risk/reward.''

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool (11) catches a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a touchdown with Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons (31) defending during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Big Ben Roethlisberger is not close to his former self in terms of extending plays -- as so many suggested -- but he is not washed up -- as many also suggested. He completed 15 of 25 for a robust 253 yards and two touchdown passes without an interception, although he did lose a fumble that led to the Broncos' first 3 points.

Rookie running back Najee Harris rushed for an early career-best 122 yards on 23 carries and speedy receiver Chase Claypool had 130 yards off five catches.

The Broncos are 3-2 after a 3-0 start. They decisively won their first three against the woeful Giants, Jaguars and Jets but they have lost their last two to the traditionally strong Ravens and Steelers, who are now 2-3.

The Broncos play their first AFC West Division game next Sunday against the Raiders at Empower Field at Mile High. The Raiders are also 3-2 after a 3-0 start.

The atmosphere was brilliant at a boisterous, if hardly filled, Heinz Field on a gorgeous October Sunday afternoon. A gathering of 59,841 showed up on a sunny, 73-degree afternoon to watch the Steelers control the game pretty much from the coin toss until the fourth quarter.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) scrambles during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Fuller had a tough first half as besides getting beat by Johnson for the long touchdown he was also flagged for a pass interference penalty late in the first half that set up first-and-goal from the 1. Harris leaped over the left side of the line for the touchdown.

The Broncos offense had no right to point fingers. It had just three first downs and 107 yards in total offense in the first half as the deficit could have been worse.

The Broncos won the coin toss and deferred -- but it struggled to see the ball the rest of the half. Steelers controlled the ball for nearly 20 minutes of the 30-minute half. They scored on their opening drive when quarterback Roethlisberger lofted his scoring pass to Johnson, who made a nice adjustment on the ball and beat man coverage from Fuller.

Bridgewater and the Broncos didn’t have the ball much and didn’t get much going when they did. With 12:42 left in the first half, the Steelers had eight first downs to none by the Broncos. Bridgewater, who missed much of the week of practice to go through the concussion protocol, was 6 of 11 for only 56 yards in the first half.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

“It’s been a grind this week,'' Bridgewater said after 9News asked him to describe his week from the time he was knocked out of the game last week by Baltimore's Odafe Oweh. "Really from a mental standpoint with all the protocol things, tests. Different training exercises. Just to make sure that I’m clear. Once I got clear, it was time to grind. We had a good plan. Just came up short.”

Bridgewater got in a passing groove in the fourth quarter. After his touchdown pass to Hinton, he connected with Sutton on a beautiful 39-yard strike for a touchdown with 5:46 remaining. That made the score 24-19. The 2-point conversion failed when Bridgewater missed Sutton on a slant. Bridgewater was screaming for a pass interference flag but didn't get it.

It was the Denver D that accounted for the Broncos’ first 3 points. Big Ben tried to extend the play with his receivers covered, but his legs wouldn’t go with him. Broncos outside linebacker Malik Reed knocked the ball out of his hand and inside linebacker Alexander Johnson picked up the fumble.

The Broncos’ offense was in business at the Steeler 29. But Steelers sensational edge rusher T.J. Watt blew up a run by Javonte Williams for a loss, and the Broncos settled for a 39-yard Brandon McManus field goal.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos General Manager John Elway walks onto the field during warm ups before an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Williams got some payback in the second quarter when the Steelers loaded up the box against the Broncos’ formation right on third-and-1. Bridgewater pitched left and Williams had just two defenders and two blockers in front of him. It was blocked well and Williams cut inside and gained 49 yards to the Steelers’ 2-yard line.

A chance to take the lead, though, was thwarted almost immediately when Williams got up and spiked the ball in celebration – only to receive a 5-yard delay of game penalty. Or so it appeared. Williams said afterwards, he spiked it because "I was mad that I got caught (before the end zone)."

Bridgewater was then sacked for a 12-yard loss and the Broncos had to settle for another short McManus field goal.

Down 17-6 at halftime, the Denver D kept a Steeler drive alive when Dre'Mont Jones was flagged for "leverage" penalty during a 51-yard field goal attempt by Chris Bosell. The kick was good but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wanted more than a 20-6 lead, and he got it. The penalty moved the ball to the Denver 18-yard line and Roethlisberger split the zone of Bryce Callahan, Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons with a pass to Claypool for the 18-yard touchdown and 24-6 lead late in the third quarter.

Credit: AP
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool celebrates after catching a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

The Broncos had three penalties cost them four points each, 12 points total:

*Williams spike penalty changed a first-and-goal at the 2 and sure touchdown to a field goal.

*The Jones' "leverage" penalty changed a field goal to a touchdown.

*The Fuller pass-interference penalty on a third-and-15 heave to the end zone changed a field goal to a touchdown.

“We had some critical penalties that really cost us in this game,'' Fangio said. 

If it's any consolation -- and it is a 17-game season that is not even one-third finished -- Bridgewater showed his teammates that they are capable of coming back. That may help them in games to come.

“Hopefully we can relay that message around here that as long as there’s time on that clock, we’ll can still fight,'' Bridgewater said. "Our backs may be up against a rope but just keep fighting till it says zero.”

Bronco Bits

Starting safety Kareem Jackson went to the locker room in the second quarter to get evaluated for a concussion after he was called by an independent doctor who was assigned to the game. Jackson missed two 10 snaps, then returned to the sideline with 5:47 left in the half. Jackson had gone low to make a nice open-field tackle on tight end Zach Gentry. Rookie Caden Sterns replaced Jackson for a couple series. 

When Jackson returned, he went low again and blasted the right shoulder of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could be seen wincing in pain as a Steeler doctor popped his shoulder back in place. Smith-Schuster was then taken to a local hospital. …

Sutton was active after a sprained ankle scare in practice Friday. Sutton held a pregame test before trainer Vince Garcia and came away feeling ready to go in the game played on a field that is a mix of grass of artificial surface (but more grass). It would have been a difficult game for Sutton to miss as Sunday was his 26th birthday.

“At practice, I just came down wrong, rolled it,'' Sutton said. "I got treatment on it and stayed on top of it from the moment it happened Friday to this morning. I’m lucky and blessed that I was able to go out there and help the team.” …

Although the Broncos activated veteran cornerback Ronald Darby from the injured reserve list Saturday, he was not active Sunday. The Broncos moved him up Saturday because there was still some uncertainty on how rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II felt with the chest injury he first suffered last Sunday against the Ravens. Surtain apparently felt fine Sunday morning. ...

Alexander Johnson tied safety Justin Simmons for the team lead with 8 tackles. Johnson also had a fumble recovery and had two near interceptions bounce off his hands. ...

Malik Reed had the Broncos only sack on Roethlisberger.

RELATED: With help from dad, Justin Strnad grows up to become Broncos linebacker trying to stop Big Ben

RELATED: Broncos put Albert Okwuegbunam on injured reserve while Ronald Darby is activated

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Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS insider Mike Klis.

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