The Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) host the Denver Broncos (10-3) in a game that will have considerable playoff implications in the AFC. With only three regular season games remaining, the Steelers have little room for error as they attempt to secure a spot in the playoffs while the Broncos are looking to lock up the AFC West and a first-round bye.
Could this be a prelude to a potenial playoff matchup? Let’s take a look at the key elements to the game and make a prediction.
When: 4:25 pm
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Spread: Steelers (-6.5)
Series History: Denver leads 14-7-1
Last Meeting: 9/9/12–Denver 31 Steelers 19
Three keys to Steelers victory:
Take advantage of a banged up Broncos secondary — It goes without question that the Broncos have as good a tandem of cornerbacks in the NFL with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr. They have keyed a secondary that is number one against the pass in the league, but safeties T.J. Ward and Omar Bolden have done their part also, and both have been ruled out of tomorrow’s game. Add starter Darian Stewart as questionable with a bad hamstring and the Broncos are painfully thin at safety.
The Steelers must take advantage of the Broncos injury issues at safety. This means getting Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton involved in the middle of the field where seldom used reserves like Shiloh Keo and Josh Bush might be asked to play significant roles.
Pressure Brock Osweiler — Earlier in the week there was some speculation that Peyton Manning might be ready to return but after being ruled out on Friday it will be Brock Osweiler once again running the show. Osweiler has sparked the Broncos offense and helped lead them to a win over the New England Patriots, but he’s yet to prove he’s close to the caliber of a healthy Manning.
Last week Osweiler was made into a human pinada by the Oakland Raiders Khalil Mack as the star linebacker registered five sacks on the day. Four of those sacks were given up by right tackle Michael Schofield so look for the Steelers to try and find ways to have similar success matching up with the inexperienced tackle.
If the Steelers can pressure Osweiler it could be a long day for a Denver offense that scored a mere 12 points at home against a putrid Raiders defense among the worst in the game.
Contain Miller and Ware — Speaking of the pass rush, the Broncos have two flat-out beasts rushing off the edge in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Miller has 10 sacks on the season while future Hall of Famer Ware has 6.5 — each can take over games in the blink of an eye.
The Steelers offensive line has done well most of the season protecting Ben Roethlisberger, but starting tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert will have their biggest challenge of the season attempting to contain Miller and Ware. If they are able to handle the challenge without the need to use Heath Miller in pass protection, it will be a huge win for the Steelers.
Three keys to Broncos victory:
Thomas and Sanders go off — You may have heard that the Steelers have been susceptible to the pass this season–that’s expecially the case on the outside where opponents have taken advantage of weak play at cornerback. The Broncos have two outstanding wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders who are clearly capable of taking advantage of this matchup so expect Osweiler to look for both early and often.
Don’t forget about veteran tight ends Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis too. Both have proven to be dangerous over their careers as downfield passing threats and the Steelers have been downright terrible defending tight ends this season.
Make Steelers offense one dimensional — Force one of the best quarterbacks in the game to beat you? Sounds insane I know, but the Broncos must stop the Steelers running game and make Roethlisberger beat them. With Talib and Harris Jr matching up one on one with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, the Broncos can take the risk and hope the dynamic tandem can do the job. Bait the Steelers into getting enamored with the pass, that means lots of opportunities to sack Roethlisberger and create turnovers.
Limit careless turnovers in the passing game — One of the biggest differences with the Broncos since Osweiler took over for Manning is the dramatic reduction in turnovers. Manning was a turnover machine, throwing 17 picks to just nine touchdowns in nine games while Osweiler has only thrown three interceptions in four starts.
Is Osweiler due for a rough game? The Broncos can’t afford mistakes against a desperate Steelers team playing of it’s best football of the season.
The Steelers are healthy and look primed for a late season run that would assure them a playoff spot. Although the Broncos are an outstanding team, they come in a little banged up on defense and must go on the road to face a team that might be as good as any team in the AFC as things stand today. Something has to give in a game that could be a preview of the AFC Championship game next month and it’s hard to not pick the Steelers. Steelers 27 Broncos 22