Based on the opener against the Giants, maybe the expectations were too high. Not so much too high in terms of the anticipated margin of victory against the Denver Broncos, but more about expecting too much regarding the quality of play leading to that anticipated outcome.
The Steelers are 2-0 today following a 26-21 victory over the Broncos at Heinz Field, but it's difficult-to-impossible to identify a phase in which they played more efficiently or looked better doing it than they had the previous Monday night in New Jersey. And so then it becomes a matter of perception: Do the Steelers deserve criticism for relapsing from opening week to Week 2, or should they be credited for adding to their resume as a team capable of find ways to win games instead of one that finds ways to lose them.
Against the Giants, the Steelers were penalized just three times for 21 yards, but penalties very nearly were their undoing at Heinz Field. The final tally was 10 for 89 yards, and they broke down this way: six were on the defense, including four for pass interference, one for roughing the passer, and one for a horse-collar tackle; two holdings, plus a delay of game on the offense; and one illegal block on special teams that nullified an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Diontae Johnson.
In addition to the penalties, add in two turnovers, one being Ben Roethlisberger's first interception of the season and the other a lost fumble by Benny Snell at a time of the game when the Steelers were attempting to milk the clock and secure the outcome with their offense, and the game's hosts were doing too much to help the Broncos enjoy their weekend in Pittsburgh.
There was more. The Steelers run defense wasn't as stout, the offense converted just 1-for-6 on third downs in each half, and punter Dustin Colquitt followed up his 36.0 net average in the opener with a 34.8 net average against the Broncos.
"Well, I would say at the end of the day we won the game," said Roethlisberger when asked how he would balance the quality of the team's performance vs. the outcome, "and that's truly all that matters … I don't want to make excuses but I didn't play well today and that's just the way it is. And we turned the ball over offensively and that's on me. And I'm just glad that our defense bailed us out, like I said. But the good news is when you play poorly and you still win the football game. So that's something to be thankful for."
The simplistic view is that the Steelers won the game with their defense, but that isn't necessarily an easy case to make. Yes, the pass rush was relentless and effective, but five of their seven sacks and both takeaways came in the first half, and so it was that the Broncos outscored the Steelers, 18-9, in the second half in mounting a comeback from their 17-3 halftime deficit.
What their defense did was make a couple of plays that contributed rather significantly to the outcome, and unsurprisingly both of those plays were sacks. On Denver's opening possession of the second half, with the Steelers seemingly coasting with a 17-3 lead, the Broncos took advantage of Roethlisberger's first interception of the season to begin with good field position. Then Jeff Driskel, who had replaced injured starter Drew Lock at quarterback in the first half, converted a third-and-8 with a 13-yard pass to K.J. Hamler and then a third-and-6 with a 14-yard pass to Noah Fant that put the ball at the Steelers' 4-yard line following a penalty on Minkah Fitzpatrick for a horse-collar tackle.
So on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, T.J. Watt sacked Driskel back to the 10-yard line, and a couple of incomplete passes later the Broncos had to settle for a red zone field goal. Then it was on Denver's final possession, with the Steelers clinging to a 26-21 lead, when their final sack set the stage for victory formation.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 2 game against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field
Fourth-and-2 from the Steelers 15-yard line with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter. It was something defensive coordinator Keith Butler hadn't shown to this point in the season, and he decided the time was right. Strong safety Terrell Edmunds blitzed off the slot and sacked Driskell for an 11-yard loss that turned the ball over on downs. Since Edmunds has played over 2,100 defensive snaps in his two-plus NFL seasons and that was just his second career sack, it would be understandable if the Broncos were surprised by the blitz.
"Yeah, you know, we're capable of really bringing anybody except the field corner," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "That's kind of our philosophical approach. We're a blitz group. It's tough to bring the field corner because of the distance he plays from (the line of scrimmage), but anybody else is capable of coming, and that's just the code we live by."
Chuck Noll believed that teams had to re-learn certain things every year, and one of those was figuring out how to develop into the kind of team that was capable of winning games while not playing its best by having certain individual players or individual units within the team make big plays at critical moments. That's the one thing the 2020 Steelers have done consistently well through the first two weeks of this season.
And it's the one thing that matters most.