Wins are more appreciated following a losing streak, so it was that the Steelers' 27-19 win over the Broncos came with little criticism from a fan base that endured three straight losing Sundays. The Steelers who spoke to the media echoed the sentiments of their fans. The team would eventually look at the plusses and minuses from Sunday that include the Broncos' late-game comeback. But for Sunday, everyone seemed content to enjoy the Steelers' second win of 2021, a win that kept Pittsburgh within striking distance in the AFC North standings.
Let's take a look at the Steelers whose stock is up and down following Sunday's win. Pittsburgh will now look ahead to it's Sunday night showdown against the Seahawks, who are 2-3 and will start Geno Smith at quarterback with Russell Wilson dealing with a hand injury.
Roethlisberger had easily his best game of the 2021 season. He wasn't perfect -- he held the ball too long on Malik Reed's first half strip sack and had three passes that were nearly intercepted -- but he was mostly efficient while taking advantage of vastly improved blocking by his offensive line (more on that later). Roethlisberger was asked to throw the ball a season-low 25 times after averaging over 40 attempts during the first four games. Sunday marked the first time in 16 games that the Steelers had more rushing attempts (35) than passing attempts (25), according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh's dedication to the running game put Roethlisberger in much more manageable second and third-down situations.
With better protection, Roethlisberger was able to look through his progressions. He completed five passes to tight ends with James Washington inactive and JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving the game with a shoulder injury. For a second straight week, his deep ball accuracy was in display on his 50-yard bomb to Diontae Johnson to start the game. And with the Steelers' lead cut to five points late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger had two key completions to Johnson and Chase Claypool to set up a Chris Boswell field goal.
The former Pro Bowler and fan favorite may have played his last down with the Steelers. Smith-Schuster left Sunday's game with what the Steelers are fearing is a season-ending shoulder injury.
It had become clear that Smith-Schuster had fallen behind Johnson and Claypool in Pittsburgh's pecking order. Prior to getting hurt on Sunday, Smith-Schuster was targeted just one time. He is fourth on the team in both receptions (15) and yards (129).
The still just 24-year-old Smith-Schuster is slated to become a free agent this offseason. And while a return in 2022 is possible, Pittsburgh will likely invest in the futures of Johnson and Claypool, while Smith-Schuster will likely pursue a new opportunity.
It's still a work in progress, but the Steelers' embattled offensive line showed marked improvement against the Broncos' formidable front. Specifically, right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor deserves praise for his handling of Broncos pass rusher Von Miller, who was a non-factor on Sunday after recording 4.5 sacks in Denver's first four games. The unit protected Roethlisberger while opening up holes for Najee Harris and Benny Snell. Harris took full advantage of his line's improvement, as he ran for a season-high 123 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
"All of us running backs can tell the difference about how much they are improving," Harris said of the line following Sunday's game, via 93.7 The Fan. "This whole press conference should be more about them. They did an amazing job. I told them that every time we got on the sidelines, even in the game in how good they were doing."
Cody White/Ray-Ray McCloud
With Smith-Schuster hurt, Pittsburgh's No. 4 and 5 receivers will have to put up better numbers than the ones they compiled on Sunday. McCloud had one reception, while White dropped a deep pass from Roethlisberger during the second half. White did have some impressive blocks in the running game, which is one of the reasons why the Steelers elevated him to the active roster.
Claypool, who missed Pittsburgh's Week 4 loss to Green Bay with an injury, caught five of six targets for a career-high 130 receiving yards against the Broncos. He provided splash in the form of a 59-yard reception on the Steelers third scoring drive and an 18-yard touchdown catch that stretched the Steelers' lead to 24-6 late in the third quarter. If he can stay healthy, Claypool should see his production increase as the season progresses.
Alex Highsmith/Melvin Ingram
Both players deserve credit for their relentless pursuit of the quarterback for 60 minutes. But neither player was a significant factor in Sunday's game, as Broncos tackle Garett Bolles largely won his matchup against both player. The Steelers have found other ways to pressure the quarterback (Devin Bush has been effective as an inside rusher), but they still need more production from Highsmith and Ingram, who have one sack between them through five weeks of the season.
Pittsburgh's young defensive back was consistently picked on by Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. And while he gave up his share of plays, Pierre came up with two critical plays that helped the Steelers get their second win. His chase down tackle of Javonte Williams prevented the Broncos' rookie running back from ripping off a 51-yard touchdown run. Instead, of tying the score, the Broncos had to settle for a field goal several plays after Pierre stopped Williams two yards short of the end zone. On the Broncos' final play from scrimmage, he blanketed Denver receiver Courtland Sutton before making the game-clinching pick.
"Just one of those plays where the defender covered it well," Bridgewater said of Pierre's pick. "Just tried to back shoulder [Sutton] to give him a chance at least to make a play. The defender covered it so well that there wasn't a window to throw a high ball outside."
Pierre made the game-saving play, but he was left on an island way too often on Sunday. After falling behind by 18 points, the Broncos put more emphasis on getting Sutton and fellow receiver Tim Patrick in one-on-one situations with the Steelers' cornerbacks. The result was a strong fourth quarter from Bridgewater and two late touchdown drives. The Steelers have to find a way to help their cornerbacks (specifically Pierre) in one-on-one situations, especially with Seattle wideouts D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett coming to town next Sunday night.