Just a month ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to muster a second-half comeback win against the Denver Broncos in no small part due to a massive game from the Steelers passing attack and a defense that found a way to completely shut down a quarterback that shredded them for two quarters.
A lot has changed since the Steelers defeated the Broncos 34-27 at Heinz Field in late December. Injuries have dramatically changed the cast of characters for the rematch in Denver as the two teams collide in the AFC Divisional playoff.
The Steelers will be without All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and leading rusher DeAngelo Williams. Add the significant injury to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers face an uphill climb against a Broncos defense that is as healthy has it’s been all season.
Oh, and there’s that Peyton Manning guy. Manning, who missed the previous meeting with a foot injury, returns to attempt to lead the Broncos back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
Let’s preview the game and make a prediction.
When: 4:40 pm
Where: Sports Authority Field, Denver, Colorodo
Spread: Denver (-7.5)
Series: Broncos lead 14-8-1
Last meeting: 12/20/15–Steelers 34 Broncos 27
Three keys to Steelers victory:
Make life miserable for Manning — Clearly in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, 39-year-old Peyton Manning is not the player he used to be. With a passer rating in the 60’s and 17 inteceptions in 10 games played this season, Manning is running on fumes. However, he’s still one of the greatest to ever play the game and in what is almost certain to be his final playoff run, Manning could be in line for a big game.
The Steelers secondary has given up a ton of yards but has been opportunistic all season. Couple that with a pass rush that ranks third in the NFL in sacks with 48, there’s reason for hope that Manning can continue his season-long theme of turning the ball over.
The Broncos offensive line has had plenty of struggles this season so the Steelers front must take advantage of this matchup consistently. Get to Manning, force the issue and this game could stay low scoring which the Steelers will deseperately need it to be if they have a shot.
All hands on deck on offense — With Brown and Williams out and Roethlisberger limited, the Steelers offense is going to have to get contributions from everyone. Expect offensive coordinator Todd Haley to try and be as creative as he can against the top defense in the NFL by using every weapon at his disposal.
It’s not going to be easy. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will need to contribute in a similar way to last week’s efforts in Cincinnati and the offensive line will need to open up running lanes to get them rolling. The line will also need to protect an injured Roethlisberger against the league’s top pass rush that includes Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Despite of the loss of Brown and Roethlisberger’s injury, the Steelers must find a way to get something going through the air. This means players like Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller will need to come up with big games and somehow, some way the rest of the Steelers wide receivers are going to have to win individual battles against the Broncos outstanding secondary.
Stay within striking distance — If the Broncos charge out to a big lead and force the Steelers to chase points, it’s going to be a long day in Denver. Keeping the game close, and preferably low scoring is the best formula for a trip to the AFC Championship. A fourth quarter that has the Steelers within a score could mean a massive upset and at the very least, will put the pressure on the Broncos. The Steelers are playing with house money in this one, put the pressure on Denver late, and you have a chance.
Three keys to Broncos victory:
Pressure Roethlisberger — Placing all of the Steelers injury woes aside, the Broncos have a bone to pick after they let a 27-13 halftime lead disappear thanks to the efforts of Roethlisberger in the second half. Much of the reason for his success was he had plenty of time in the pocket to dissect a Broncos secondary missing both starters at safety along with key reserve Omar Bolden.
The Broncos are healthy now, and look for them to throw the kitchen sink at Roethlisberger with blitz packages and trust their two elite corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. to match up man to man on the outside. Get to Roethlisberger and the Broncos will be in great shape, they may even press backup Landry Jones into action which would be a huge win in itself.
Get Thomas and Sanders involved — Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are a lethal combination at wide receiver and have to be licking their chops to face a Steelers secondary that ranks near the bottom in yards allowed. Both Sanders and Thomas had outstanding games in their loss to the Steelers in late December, and it would seem likely the Broncos will look to get them heavily involved Sunday.
The Steelers don’t really have a lot of answers for Thomas and Sanders at cornerback and that is something that Manning will look to take advantage of.
Minimize mistakes — If the Broncos play a “clean” game by winning the turnover battle and staying away from penalties, it would seeem highly likely they will beat the injury ravaged Steelers. That might be easier said than done considering the Steelers lead the NFL with 30 forced turnovers and Manning’s 17 interceptions thrown.
Don’t hand the Steelers opportunities with mistakes and the Broncos should cruise to victory.
It’s hard to be positive heading to Denver as banged up as the Steelers are. It’s been a theme all season really, vital pieces to the puzzle injured and the Steelers having to figure out how to keep the train rolling. For all the talk of Mike Tomlin’s teams not getting up for the “easy” games, history tells you they are often at their best when the odds are stacked against them. Expect a spirited effort from the Steelers, but in the end the injuries have sabotaged a season that could have easily ended with a Super Bowl title. Broncos 27 Steelers 13