ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In just 30 football minutes on Sunday, the narrative around the Denver Broncos' defense underwent a distinct change.
At halftime of what eventually became Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos had a two-touchdown lead with the No. 1 defense in the league to protect it. By game’s end, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had 380 yards passing -- he is the only quarterback to have topped 300 yards passing in a game against the Broncos this season -- while Antonio Brown had 189 yards receiving to go with two touchdowns, and the Steelers had a 34-27 win.
And the Broncos' defense -- the one that powered Denver to its 7-0 start, has scored five touchdowns of its own and spent much of the season leading the league in most major categories -- is now in bounce-back mode ahead of Monday night's visit from the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Pittsburgh is in the back of our minds," Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. “We've got a whole new challenge, a whole new team to face this week. We'll prepare for them just like we did the previous weeks. It's not like it rolled over from Pittsburgh -- ‘Oh, let's take Pittsburgh and be mad.’ It is what it is. Cincinnati is going to get this Broncos D."
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who spent much of Week 15 matched up on Brown, stepped forward in the accountability department, saying, “I let my team down." But there were some explanations for the defense’s worst outing of what has otherwise been a historic season.
For one, the Steelers’ three second-half touchdown drives went for 58, 60 and 37 yards, as the Broncos didn’t do enough on offense or special teams to improve the defense’s lot on field position. And other than Russell Wilson or Cam Newton, Roethlisberger might be the hottest quarterback in the league. Then there's Brown, who would have Broncos coach Gary Kubiak's MVP vote.
"That's not how we look at it," linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "We look at it like the offense did enough [against the Steelers], and our job is to hold the lead. We didn't do it, but we went right to work. We have games to play and goals still out there."
One of those goals is for the 10-4 Broncos to earn a playoff spot, and they say they quickly hit the reset button with the 11-3 Bengals coming to town.
“It's easy, you stick to what you do," Harris said. “I've been playing the same coverage for five years, the same technique for five years. I rarely get beat. If you get beat, you just have to believe in your technique, continue to stick to what you're doing. I was just out of whack last week. It just happens. Sometimes you'll be out of whack and you have to bounce back."
Kubiak said his players know that the playoffs are approaching and are aware of what's at stake. "What is there, 10, 11 days left in our [regular] season? And we've got a lot of work to do," he said. "We've got a big one this weekend."
The Broncos will face Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron, who has replaced the injured Andy Dalton. McCarron has thrown for 280 and 192 yards in his two starts to go with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
However, the number to watch with McCarron is seven, the number of times the second-year player has been sacked over those two games. The Broncos are tops in the NFL in that department, with 47. It won't help McCarron that tight end Tyler Eifert, who leads the Bengals with 12 touchdown receptions, is not expected to play Monday night because of concussion issues.
Denver's defense has yet to surrender 310 yards or more in back-to-back games this season, and only once -- in losses to Indianapolis and Kansas City -- have the Broncos surrendered at least 20 points in consecutive games.
“It's football. If you're not feeling pressure, then you're not active," Talib said. “We're used to playing with that pressure. It's go time. The closer you get to the end of the year, the closer you get to the tournament, the deeper you get in the tournament, it's more pressure. That's common sense."