A matchup in early November 2009 on the road on Monday Night Football against the Denver Broncos might not be a game that’s remembered all that well in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but what a remarkable game it was.
Visiting then-Invesco Field at Mile High to take on the red-hot 6-1 Broncos under first-year head coach Josh McDaniels, the Steelers rolled into town at 5-2 in a matchup of two early season AFC powerhouses.
Pittsburgh showed who was the true powerhouse in the AFC on Nov. 9, 2009, in front of a national audience, pulling away in dominant fashion in the second half for a 28-10 win, moving to 6-2 on the season. However, the bottom completely fell out after the win over Denver as Pittsburgh lost five straight and finished the year 9-7 overall.
That said, the Steelers still had that night in Denver.
The Steelers got off to a slow start, trailing 3-0 after one quarter of play. In the first quarter, Pittsburgh ran just 10 offensive plays as Denver controlled the ball and the tempo of the game. But in the second quarter, backup safety Tyrone Carter — in the starting lineup due to head coach Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep Ryan Clark out of the game because of sickle cell trait — sparked the Steelers.
On a first and 10 from the Denver 42-yard line, quarterback Kyle Orton dropped back to throw and ended up throwing late over the middle, right into the breadbasket of Carter. He raced untouched 48 yards for a touchdown, giving the Steelers a 7-3 lead with 13:01 left in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh and Denver then traded possessions before the two teams headed into halftime with Pittsburgh holding a 7-3 lead in the tightly contested matchup.
Coming out of the locker room, Pittsburgh looked to extend the lead and was putting a strong drive together as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver Hines Ward for 18 yards and wide receiver Santonio Holmes for 16 yards. Then disaster struck on Denver’s side of the field.
Roethlisberger was sacked by Denver’s Kenny Peterson, resulting in a fumble that defensive end Robert Ayers scooped up and returned 54 yards for a touchdown, giving Denver a 10-7 lead.
Pittsburgh shook off the fumble return for a score on the next drive though, marching right down the field in four plays to retake the lead.
Roethlisberger found rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace for 18 yards to spark the drive, and then running back Rashard Mendenhall went to work, ripping off a 24-yard run to put the Steelers in Denver territory.
The very next play after Mendenhall’s explosive run, Roethlisberger hooked up with Holmes for a 36-yard gain, beating future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey in the process. That set up an eventual 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hines Ward to give the Steelers back the lead.
With the lead, Pittsburgh really started to take over the game, especially on the ground with Mendenhall.
On the next drive after the score, Mendenhall ripped off a 28-yard run thanks to a great block on the move from left guard Chris Kemoeatu, putting the Steelers in Denver territory again.
The promising drive ultimately ended in a Roethlisberger interception by Andre Goodman, but that didn’t stop the Steelers from rolling right along in the second half.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Troy Polamalu came through in the clutch for Pittsburgh deep in Denver territory.
One play after a big tackle for loss on running back Correll Buckhalter, Polamalu picked off an errant throw from Orton, setting the Steelers up in scoring position with a 14-10 lead.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger put on a vintage display on a third and 10, scrambling and throwing on the move to Wallace for a 25-yard touchdown, stretching Pittsburgh’s lead to double digits.
Wow, is it fun to watch vintage Roethlisberger making plays like that again.
He was so good out of structure and on the move. He always came through with clutch plays like that. Big reason why he’ll be in the Hall of Fame in a few years.
With an 11-point lead, Pittsburgh put the game away.
Pittsburgh marched right down the field on the ground, leaning heavily on Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore to put the game away.
Mendenhall ripped off a 36-yard run behind left guard to kickstart the put-away drive.
He was so darn explosive, and that offensive line in 2009 was really underrated.
Following Mendenhall’s burst, the Steelers stayed on the ground, punishing Denver in the thin air.
An 18-yard run by Mendenhall just before the two-minute warning set up Pittsburgh at the 3-yard line.
Two plays later, on a rather gutsy, risky call, Roethlisberger hit Ward on a bubble screen, leading to Ward hurdling Bailey and getting into the end zone for the game-sealing score.
With a 28-10 lead in hand, the Steelers relied on the defense to truly put the game away.
Much like earlier in the game when he got the Steelers going, Carter put the game to bed for good, picking off Orton for his second interception of the night, leading to a memorable celebration with Clark on the field.
Mendenhall led the Steelers with 155 rushing yards on 22 carries, while Roethlisberger was 21-of-29 for 233 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in the win. Ward led the way as a receiver with seven receptions for 44 yards and two scores, while Holmes finished with six catches for 93 yards. Wallace added four for 69 yards and a score.
Defensively, Carter had two interceptions and a touchdown, while linebacker Keyaron Fox led the Steelers with nine tackles and outside linebacker James Harrison added seven tackles. Defensive end Brett Keisel was stout for the Steelers with two sacks.
For Denver, Orton finished 23-for-38 for 223 yards and three interceptions, while wide receiver Brandon Marshall led Denver with 11 receptions for 112 yards. Pittsburgh held Denver to 27 rushing yards on 14 carries. Defensively, Bailey led Denver with 12 tackles while Wesley Woodyard added eight tackles.
With the win, Pittsburgh moved to 6-2. They were riding high as one of the top teams in the AFC.
But, after leading the Mile High City the Steelers struggled to find their footing.
A home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, 18-12, ultimately led to back-to-back road losses in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs (27-24) and Baltimore Ravens (20-17) before then returning home and losing to the then-Oakland Raiders (27-24) and then on the road against the Cleveland Browns (13-6) dropping to 6-7 on the season.
The Steelers, to their credit, rallied late in the season, ripping off wins against the Green Bay Packers (37-36), Ravens (23-20) and at the Miami Dolphins (30-24) to finish the season 9-7. It wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs though.