DOVE VALLEY, Colo. -- With just four opponents that had a losing record in 2011 on the schedule -- and none of those foes popping up until the second half of the season -- the Broncos have little chance for celebration, or even reflection, for the first few weeks of the season.
But the manner in which they turned back the Steelers is one they will likely have to repeat in future weeks if their Super Bowl aspirations are to become reality. Denver kept the Steelers off-kilter with a no-huddle offense that balanced runs and passes equally and used heavy pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to cause a three-and-out and a Tracy Porter interception after the Steelers had driven to a pair of touchdowns and a field goal on three consecutive drives that chewed up 20 minutes, one second of game time.
With perennial Pro Bowler Champ Bailey still an elite lockdown corner on the left side, opposing quarterbacks will throw in Porter's direction, which is why he ended up with eight tackles and five passes defensed against Pittsburgh -- 50 percent of the Broncos' entire total. Such extensive work for the Broncos' right cornerback was typical in recent years, and veteran imports Dre' Bly and Andre' Goodman both found themselves targeted by passers throwing away from Bailey at all costs.
But over five seasons with the Broncos, Bly (2007-08) and Goodman (2009-11) combined for just 15 interceptions in spite of the extensive work. Because Bly and Porter couldn't cash in on their chances, the Broncos had fewer interceptions (56) over the last five years than any other team, and a lower interception percentage (2.24 percent) than every team but Minnesota. Most significantly, the Broncos were tied with Carolina and Houston for the fewest interception returns for touchdowns in that span, with just three.
All of those numbers were incompatible with the opportunistic defense that the Broncos needed to complement the Peyton Manning-led offense -- and the one that was the quickest to construct with the returning talent on hand: a pair of Pro Bowl pass rushers (Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil) and Bailey. Enter Porter, who the Broncos pounced to add after signing Manning.
A successful season for Porter will likely involve him taking chances and getting beat from time to time, but also making some game-changing plays -- like his 43-yard return for a touchdown to seal the 31-19 win over Pittsburgh.
"That was at a critical time," added Broncos coach John Fox. "The guy has had an excellent camp. Obviously we liked him. Our personnel department did a great job evaluating him. He had a good first time out."
Porter had conceded a 3-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace earlier in the fourth quarter, but had the play properly covered. He'd been beaten, but not enough to where he was going to dial back his aggressiveness.
"There's a safety over the top so I'm aggressive on anything short," Porter said. "The quarterback tried to fit it in there and I just made a play on the ball."
The Broncos expect more from him against other pass-intensive opponents, even though he was anything but an interception machine during his four seasons with the Saints.
In those years, he logged seven interceptions in 43 games there, with four coming in 2009. But he had a knack for making his thefts count, and in a two-game span made the two most important interceptions in Saints history: a game-saving pickoff of Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game and the game-clinching interception and touchdown of Manning in Super Bowl XLIV a fortnight later.
He's already sealed one game for the Broncos, and earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in the process. With the Falcons expected to attack Denver's secondary with a three-pronged attack of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, he'll have plenty of chances to alter another game Monday.
"Any defensive back playing opposite Champ is going to get the work," Porter said.
That's why his celebration ended so quickly after his touchdown.