That won't be easy with center Tom Nalen out for the season, receiver Javon Walker out for about another month and cornerback Champ Bailey still working his way back from a quadriceps injury, but they took some steps against Pittsburgh. Denver's next test is next Monday night against Green Bay.
The Broncos beat the Steelers 31-28 on a field goal as time expired to get back to .500 this season. Even though they gave up a 14-point lead, the performance was their best of the season. At 2-3, having three straight losses including a 38-point loss to San Diego before the bye week, the Broncos knew they had to win or else.
"Everybody was going into this game knowing it was a must win," tight end Tony Scheffler said. "It wasn't talked about that much but if we go 2-4 with the rest of the AFC playing well ... it was a must win."
The Broncos improved over the bye week. The run defense had been miserable in the first five games, allowing the most rushing yards per game in the NFL by a wide margin. But against Pittsburgh, Willie Parker had 93 yards on 21 carries, a manageable number.
Denver often stuck eight men near the line of scrimmage, sacrificing some pass defense to shore up its biggest weakness. The Broncos also forced three turnovers in the first half. They hadn't forced many turnovers in the first five games, and the two interceptions and a fumble recovery helped them take a 21-7 halftime lead against the Steelers. Defensive end Tim Crowder recovered a fumble and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown, the kind of big play that had been lacking from the defense.
Overall, the Broncos' confidence never waned, and that helped them get back on track after a terrible month.
"The great thing about this team is after three losses, I didn't see any heads down," linebacker D.J. Williams said. "We have the talent to go far."
Offensively, the Broncos also turned a corner. They had trouble scoring in the red zone in five games, but their only field-goal attempt against Pittsburgh was on the final play. They scored four touchdowns, with quarterback Jay Cutler throwing three.
Denver faced some adversity on its final drive. Already without Walker and Nalen, running back Travis Henry was out of the game with bruised ribs. But Glenn Martinez, Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham each caught big passes to set up Elam's game-winner.
"You lose guys, other guys have to step up," Cutler said.
Even Denver's special teams came up big. They had a couple of decent returns, covered well, Todd Sauerbrun had a 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter and Elam came through with a 49-yarder to win the game. The Broncos had so much confidence in Elam, once they got within a 50-yard attempt, they were satisfied to run the ball once for a one-yard loss, then send Elam on with two seconds left.
Elam's game-winner might have saved Denver's season.
"That was a big-time kick," Shanahan said.
--CB Champ Bailey was inactive against Pittsburgh with a left quadriceps injury. Bailey had only missed two games in his career before Sunday, when he missed a pair in 2005 with a hamstring injury. Bailey could return for next Monday night's game against Green Bay.
--CB Domonique Foxworth started in injured Champ Bailey's place. Foxworth is the Broncos' top backup at every secondary position, a smart, athletic player who can adapt to any responsibility.
--DE Simeon Rice was inactive for the second straight game. Rice, who is coming off shoulder surgery, says he is healthy and is not happy to be inactive on gamedays. Rice said he doesn't know when he'll get back in the lineup.
--WR Brandon Stokley started in place of injured Javon Walker. Stokley had a good game, including a 15-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Stokley should continue to be a reliable target for Jay Cutler as long as Walker is out.
--WR Javon Walker had successful surgery to clean up his injured right knee, but doctors estimated he will miss six more weeks. Because the surgery was not to repair any ligaments, it is possible Walker can return a week or two ahead of schedule.
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