Steelers 26, Broncos 21: Give the Steelers’ defense its due for this win

Last season, without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers took any kind of win they could get and salvaged a .500 record.

This season, with Roethlisberger back, the Steelers have their sights set a lot higher than .500.

So is it too much to ask for Steelers wins to be worthy of a dating-site profile picture rather than just attractive enough through beer goggles to pick up at last call?

The Steelers’ 26-21 victory over the Broncos Sunday at Heinz Field won’t win any beauty contests. A defense that after Week 1 was being compared to some of the storied Steelers defenses of the 1970s nearly allowed Jeff Driskel to complete a 12-point fourth-quarter comeback.

Driskel, who was drafted in the sixth round by the 49ers in 2016, is 1-7 as a starter and playing for his third team in three years. He replaced Drew Lock, who left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury, and had the ball at the Steelers’ 15-yard-line on third-and-2 at the two-minute warning with the Steelers leading by five.

After an incomplete pass, perhaps the unlikeliest of Steelers’ defensive saviors emerged when Terrell Edmunds sacked Driskel for an 11-yard loss on fourth-down. It was the safety’s second career sack and the seventh for the Steelers (2-0) in the game. T.J. Watt had 2.5 of those sacks.

James Conner padded his stats and secured the win when he ran for 59 of his 106 yards to put the ball on the Denver 10 with 1:30 left.

Does it raise red flags to see a defense that’s been hailed as the best in the NFL come so close to allowing a journeyman quarterback to earn his first career fourth-quarter comeback badge?

The Steelers seemingly took command after Diontae Johnson, who led the team in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (92) caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger for a 24-14 lead with 11:26 left.

The defense, which allowed just five of 15 third-down conversions, then forced a three-and-out and a punt from the end zone. Sam Martin muffed the snap, and Derek Watt made like his younger brother and pounced on the punter for the safety and a 26-14 Steelers lead with 10 minutes left.

Then it was the Steelers offense, just as much as the defense, that let the Broncos back into the game.

Johnson ran the free kick back to the Broncos’ 48. But Benny Snell, who gained 113 yards in the Steelers’ Week 1 win over the Giants, was handed the ball for just the third time in the game and fumbled it away.

Driskel then capped a penalty-aided six-play, 54-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Gordon to make it 26-21 with 7:43 left.

Gordon led the Broncos with 70 yards on 19 carries, but he gained just 27 of those yards after the first quarter.

The Steelers defense yielded 319 total yards. They allowed more than that only five times last season, and just twice after their 0-3 start. But on Sunday, the offense didn’t make it easy on them. Roethlisberger’s first interception of the season led to a field goal that trimmed the Steelers’ lead to 17-6 early in the third quarter, and Johnson dropped a third-down pass with 6:16 left in the game to allow the Broncos one last shot at completing the comeback.

We need to see a fuller body of work before we start comparing this Steelers defense to any of its 1970s ancestors. We know it can vanquish quarterbacks like Daniel Jones, Lock and Driskel, but the tests get tougher starting next week when Deshaun Watson comes to town. Eventually, this defense will have to figure out a way to stop Lamar Jackson.

All we know now is that on Sunday, the Steelers defense got the job done.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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