PITTSBURGH -- For the Denver Broncos, it is how they start that is playing a troubling role in how they finish.
Even during their 3-0 start, their penchant for a stumble out of the gate most every week was a red flag hidden in the happiness. But now, at 3-2 after Sunday's 27-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field -- a game in which they trailed 24-6 in the third quarter -- it is officially a problem that has caught up to them.
"We've got to obviously start better," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We can't try and catch up being down as much as we were and wait to get some first downs on offense, stop some passes on defense, play the run better, et cetera."
"If we want to be who we want to be, we can't just start out slow, wait until we get in a hole," said Broncos running back Melvin Gordon. "... And [then] try to pull it together at the end. This is the National Football League -- it's too hard."
The Broncos have trailed in the first quarter in three of their five games and have now trailed at halftime -- by double digits -- during losses the past two weeks. Offensively, they have yet to score a touchdown on the first drive of any game. Defensively, they have surrendered touchdowns on the opponents' first drive twice, including Sunday.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had all of one completion of at least 50 yards in his team's first four games combined, gave Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead with a 50-yard scoring pass to Diontae Johnson with 12 minutes, 2 seconds still left in the first quarter. Roethlisberger then completed a 59-yard catch-and-run to Chase Claypool in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the Broncos' offense went 11, 8 and 8 yards on their first three possessions -- one of which began at the Steelers' 29 following a Malik Reed strip sack of Roethlisberger that yielded only a field goal.
Later, in the second quarter, Broncos running back Javonte Williams went 49 yards on a run to the Steelers' 2-yard line. But Williams spiked the ball after the play because he was "mad" he didn't score and was flagged for delay of game. Williams said he didn't know the rule.
That moved the ball back to the Steelers' 7-yard line. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sacked on the next play for a loss of 12 yards, and the Broncos were forced to kick another field goal two plays later.
"First-and-goal from the 7, we've got to be able to punch it in," Fangio said.
"Think it's got to be mindset, we've just got to have some energy," Bridgewater said. "We might need to do like the colleges and do like goal-line in the pregame or something. Just bash heads, get the blood flowing, juices flowing."
Sunday, a 1-of-8 start on third-down conversions (the Broncos had just three first downs in the first half) turned into a 2-of-12 performance for the game. And a team whose head coach and offensive coordinator -- Pat Shurmur -- have each said they believe in the importance of running the ball has now had 17 and 18 rushing attempts over the past two losses.
In the loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday, the Broncos ran the ball four times in the second half in what was a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. And in the loss to the Steelers, the Broncos ran the ball just eight times in the first half, as they sputtered enough that even Bridgewater's 176 passing yards in the fourth quarter couldn't save them.
"It's concerning -- we didn't move the ball very well at all until late there," Fangio said. "Obviously, it's a concern."
"We want to be able to start fast and have guys on the ropes before we go into halftime," Sutton said, "so coming out of halftime it's not a tooth-and-nail fight."