Ben Roethlisberger is over the Denver Broncos.
After watching one season end and another begin with a pair of painful losses nine months apart in the Mile High city, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback is OK if his team’s travel plans don’t include Denver for awhile.
“I’d like to say I hope we come back here, but I hope we don’t,” Roethlisberger said after the Steelers fell 31-19 on Sunday night. “I hope they come back to our place because it’s a nice advantage.”
A rematch in the playoffs isn’t out of the question, even if the Steelers were less than thrilled with letting Denver and Peyton Manning pour in 24 points during a spirited second-half rally.
““We just weren’t making any plays — any significant plays,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “We weren’t getting pressure. We weren’t getting pass breakups. We just weren’t making plays.”
At least, not the kind of plays the Steelers are used to making.
Once the Broncos switched to the no-huddle offense in the second quarter with Manning calling the shots at the line of scrimmage, the Steelers looked a half-step slow. The four-time MVP passed for 253 yards and two scores and was barely touched over the final two quarters as Pittsburgh failed to win on Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 75th birthday.
“We just couldn’t get to Peyton,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “He was getting the ball out quick.”
Something that’s hardly a part of Roethlisberger’s game.
The quarterback never met a play he didn’t like to extend, though Denver’s swarming defense took advantage of a battered offensive line to sack him five times and force him into a handful of tough throws.
The biggest coming on a late sideline pass to Emmanuel Sanders on Pittsburgh’s final meaningful drive that Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter turned into a game-deciding 43-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I should have called timeout,” Roethlisberger said. “The play clock was running down. I hate to burn timeouts, but I should have. We were covered all over the place. There’s no one to blame but myself.”
The ending marred a solid if not exactly spectacular start to the Todd Haley era in Pittsburgh. The Steelers brought in the fiery Haley as offensive coordinator in the offseason to become more effective running the ball and take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger’s broad shoulders.
Though Pittsburgh struggled moving it on the ground, needing 26 carries to manage 75 yards, the Steelers controlled the clock and the game for long stretches. They converted 11 of 19 third downs and during a 14-minute span between the second and third quarters ran 30 plays while Manning took all of one snap, a kneel-down at that.
Not bad for a unit that lost right tackle Marcus Gilbert to a hyperextended left knee and right guard Ramon Foster to an eye injury in the first half. Neither returned, leaving Pittsburgh with a patchwork line that looked awfully similar to the one the Steelers used in January’s 29-23 overtime loss to the Broncos in the playoffs.
The group managed to keep the Steelers competitive until the end and coach Mike Tomlin is optimistic Gilbert and Foster will be back in the lineup on Sunday against the suddenly explosive New York Jets (1-0).
Though loss was disappointing, it pales in comparison to the 35-7 debacle against Baltimore in last year’s season opener, when Pittsburgh turned it over seven times and looked overwhelmed.
“This one wasn’t as bad, but it’s bad for me because I hate to have that happen and it stings,” Roethlisberger said.
Pittsburgh recovered to win 12 games last fall. Expectations are just as high again this season, though the schedule isn’t nearly as user friendly. Three of the next five games are on the road, with the two home games against the Jets and instate rival Philadelphia.
The Steelers are hardly ready to panic — they never are — but they didn’t plan on spending the second half against the Broncos chasing receivers downfield. It happened anyway, with Manning’s 71-yard touchdown pass to DeMaryius Thomas looking eerily like Tim Tebow’s 80-yard strike to Thomas on the first play of overtime in last January’s playoff game.
Thomas took a short pass from Manning, used a couple of blocks and sprinted for a score to give Denver a 14-13 lead, with Pittsburgh safety Ryan Mundy — who chased Thomas fruitlessly down the sideline in the playoff game — in hot pursuit.
Same players. Same end zone. Same result.
At least this time, the season isn’t over. And Denver is off the schedule. At least for now.
“You always want to start strong,” Keisel said. “We’ve got some things we need to get better at. We’ll take a look at this and hopefully learn from our mistakes.”