DENVER - Mike Anderson stood in front of his locker with a bright orange Denver Broncos jersey that he was pulling over his head. Anderson continued pulling and the jersey fell straight. A bold No. 7 spread across his chest. Anderson was asked why he was wearing John Elway’s jersey.
“Thought it was the right time of year to pull it out,” Anderson said.
Less than 25 minutes earlier, the Broncos had lost the AFC Championship Game 34-17 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Too bad, at least for Broncos fans, Elway couldn’t have been in that jersey leading the Broncos on Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High. The Hall of Fame quarterback showed numerous times that he possessed the tools required to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
Jake Plummer does not have those qualities.
When the Broncos needed their quarterback to play his best game, Plummer turned in one of his worst performances.
Plummer wasn’t the only problem the Broncos had Sunday, but he was the biggest.
The Broncos’ third-down defense was putrid, allowing the Steelers to complete 63 percent of their third-down plays. And it wasn’t as if the Steelers were converting on short gains. Seven of their 10 third-down conversions were on plays of 6 yards or longer.
And Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who finished 21 of 29 for 275 yards and two touchdowns, picked apart the Broncos secondary.
So, it wasn’t all Plummer’s undoing. But his part was still major.
Plummer committed all four of the Broncos’ turnovers — two interceptions and two fumbles. Two of Plummer’s turnovers — the first-quarter fumble and the second-quarter interception — happened in the Broncos’ end of the field. Pittsburgh converted both into touchdowns.
“It was tough,” Plummer said about the Steelers’ pass rush. “They were bringing some good looks and getting after it. They got a lead and we kind of abandoned the run. I was able to get out and make some plays, but against a defense like that, it’s going to be hard.”
Plummer’s erratic play, early in the game, wasn’t because of a lack of protection from his line. Plummer had time early. He just didn’t make the right reads.
“When you become one-dimensional and you’re forced to pass the ball, then you play into our hands,” Pittsburgh defensive back Troy Polamalu said, smiling.
That’s what happened Sunday. The Broncos needed to pass and Plummer failed to read the Steelers’ defensive zones correctly.
“I just made a bad play,” Plummer said, referring to the interception he threw near the end of the first half. “Had we stayed close, I think we could’ve ran the ball on them.”
That might have happened, but the Steelers’ defense took Plummer and Denver out of their offensive game plan well before they could mount any serious threat.
“It’s all about pressure,” Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. “We really got after (Plummer). I felt like I could beat their tackles off the end and was able to keep containment when he would bootleg to my side.”
The bootleg wasn’t the only thing that failed to be available for the Broncos offense. The running game wasn’t there — Anderson led the way with 36 yards. The passing game faltered, too, as Plummer completed 18 of 30 passes for 223 yards, a touchdown and the two interceptions. Plummer finished with a 66.4 passer rating, his third lowest rating in 18 games.
Except for the Broncos’ fourthquarter touchdown drive, which was aided by three penalties, Plummer’s scrambles were the Broncos’ biggest plays of the game.
As the game progressed, so did the Steelers’ defensive aggression. And that created continuous confusion for the Broncos.
“Offensively, we had to give our guy more time,” Broncos fullback Kyle Johnson said. “He needed it. He deserved it. He made plays when he got it.
“They blitzed like crazy. They were flying around the ball. Half the time they were trying to cause confusion so that you’re sitting there totally baffled and don’t know who you’re supposed to pick up. And the next thing you know, the quarterback is getting tremendous pressure, and that affects his ability to drop back and go through a progression.”
And that keeps Broncos fans dreaming of what No. 7 might have done.