PITTSBURGH -- The biggest question surrounding the Denver Broncos' season has been, can the offense be there if the defense needs it?
Because going into Sunday's game with a 10-3 record, the Broncos' defense hadn't ever really needed it.
Against the hottest offense in the league, however, the answer was no. An interception by linebacker Ryan Shazier with 4:20 left in the game helped give the Pittsburgh Steelers a 34-27 victory at Heinz Field.
The Steelers came into the game having piled up 500 yards on opposing defenses three times in the previous five games. And while the Broncos hung in and even dominated at times with both starting safeties (T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart) out of the lineup, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger became the first opposing quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Broncos this season. Receiver Antonio Brown had 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
The Broncos built a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter and led 27-13 at halftime. On three drives that followed a Ronnie Hillman fumble on the second play from scrimmage, Denver scored touchdowns on its next three drives. The Broncos had momentum, the lead and the league's No. 1 defense.
None of it was enough as the offense was unable to recapture any of that mojo after halftime.
What were they thinking? Kicker Brandon McManus had missed a field goal in each of the previous three games coming into Sunday. Last week, Broncos special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, as expected, gave the not-worried response when asked about the kicking game. But McManus’ missed extra point on Sunday turned out to be the kind of game-altering play the league’s rules makers had hoped it could be when they moved the kicks back 15 yards this season.
One reason to get excited: There were moments, especially in the first half, when quarterback Osweiler looked every bit the get-it-done starter-in-waiting the Broncos had hoped he could be. In his first real road test, he handled a game plan that called on him to work out of open formations, including plenty of empty sets in throwing to all parts of the field. For the most part, Osweiler also showed an improved awareness in the pocket when the Broncos' offense was rolling in the first half. And he was a big part of the reason the Broncos converted their first three third-down situations. Osweiler had three scoring passes and a rushing touchdown.
One reason to panic: The Broncos still don’t consistently block well enough up front, even in their two-tight end look, to make foes believe they are going to be able to win a foul-weather game or close out a game with a lead in the postseason. The Broncos’ plan called for opening things up a bit by spreading the Steelers’ defense out early in the game, and they found room to work in the passing game. But as the game wore on, the Steelers gradually took charge of the line of scrimmage, and the Broncos were unable to construct a scoring drive after halftime.
Fantasy watch: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who played four seasons for the Steelers before he signed with the Broncos in free agency, looked healthier in this past week’s practice than he had any time since he had suffered shoulder and ankle injuries. Sanders had 139 yards receiving in the first half and 181 yards in the game. If he keeps the kind of edge and emotion he showed against the Steelers, he should have a big stretch run.
Ouch: Osweiler finished the game, but he went to the locker room with a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury just before halftime. Cornerback Aqib Talib went to the sidelines in the first half and had his neck checked by trainers, but he also returned to finish the game. Running back C.J. Anderson also finished the game after briefly going to the sideline.
A great run: When Roethlisberger threw a 9-yard scoring pass to Brown with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, it was the first touchdown Chris Harris Jr. had surrendered directly to his man in coverage since Nov. 24, 2013, against the New England Patriots.