Countdown to kickoff: Steelers at Broncos

Posted Jan 16, 2016

The Steelers head to Denver to take on the Broncos in an AFC Divisional Playoff game.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) vs. Denver Broncos (12-4)
Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016
Sports Authority Field at Mile High
4:40 p.m.

Broncos lead, 14-8-1 (Broncos lead, 4-3, postseason)  

Steelers 34, Broncos 27, Dec. 20, 2015, Heinz Field: The Broncos took a 27-10 lead in the first half but the Steelers responded by kicking a field goal with four seconds left in the second quarter and with 21 more unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters. WR Antonio Brown had 16 catches for 189 yards and two TDs and WR Martavis Bryant had 10 catches for 87 yards. They were the main targets for QB Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 40 of 55 attempts for 380 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Denver QB Brock Osweiler was 21-for-44 for 296 yards with three TDs and an INT.

LAST TIME OUT: The Steelers surrendered 16 fourth-quarter points and a 15-0 lead but rallied to beat the Bengals, 18-16, on a 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds left in regulation on Jan. 9 in Cincinnati. The Broncos had a first-round bye. Denver beat San Diego, 27-20, in its regular-season finale on Jan. 3 in Denver.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL: They’ll most likely run the same offense they did on Dec. 20; the difference is Peyton Manning will be at QB this time. At 39 and coming off an injury that sidelined him for six of the last seven games, Manning’s overall effectiveness remains to be seen. Manning threw for nine touchdowns and was intercepted 17 times in nine starts this season, his 18th in the NFL, before being removed (foot) on Nov. 15 against Kansas City. He completed five of nine passes for 69 yards upon replacing Osweiler in the regular-season finale against San Diego.

Manning was under center for 11 of his 29 snaps against the Chargers, an indication he’s regained just enough mobility to make the drops and get back to hand the ball off. He’s relying much more on anticipation, timing and accuracy than he is arm strength but his ability to dissect a defense and get the Broncos into the right play at the right time is as seemingly as sharp as ever. He’ll impact the game pre-snap in that fashion. Two of his throws against the Chargers went at least 30 yards down the field, so shots down the field aren’t out of the question. But chances are the ball is going to come out of the pocket quickly and won’t sizzle toward its intended target. And if he has to he’ll accept a sack.

Like last time, both starting OTs are on the reserve/injured list (Ryan Clady, Ty Sambrailo). And like last time, the Broncos can be expected to attempt to establish outside-zone runs, off which they can look for cutback lanes or run play-action bootlegs (not entirely out of Manning’s wheelhouse). The idea is to cut-block the backside pursuit and open up options for RBs Ronnie Hillman (the speed back) and C.J. Anderson (the power back).

WR Emmanuel Sanders had 10 catches and 181 receiving yards in the first meeting with the Steelers, including eight receptions, 139 yards and a 61-yard TD in a first half that saw him repeatedly exploit coverage breakdowns. WR Demaryius Thomas had a 72-yard catch-and-run TD against the Chargers (a 5-yard catch and a 67-yard run) and beat the Steelers with a similar 80-yard score in overtime in the 2011 postseason. TE Owen Daniels has been a problem for the Steelers in Houston and Baltimore previously. Denver had the No. 16 offense in the NFL in the regular season (17th rushing, 14th passing) and was No. 28 in the red zone (TDs 47.7 percent of the time).

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL:  Chances are they’ll see the same Denver defense they did in the first meeting; the difference this time is SS T.J. Ward and FS Darian Stewart are both in line to start. That would bolster a defense that finished No. 1 in total defense (283.1 yards per game), No. 1 in pass defense (199.6), No. 1 in sacks (52), No. 3 (tied) in defensive touchdowns (five) and No. 4 in scoring defense (18.5 points per game).

DE Derek Wolfe, NT Sylvester Wolfe and DE Malik Jackson comprise an aggressive, penetrating front. And ILBs Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall became Denver’s first 100-tackles tandem (110/101) since 2009. All that activity helps the Broncos win first down (No. 2 in yards per first down play at 4.25). So does Denver’s affinity for an eight-man box. Winning first down allows the Broncos to turn their pass rush loose. The Broncos got their league-leading 52 sacks from 14 different players, including 11 that had multiple sacks. OLB Von Miller led the way with 11, followed by OLB DeMarcus Ware (7.5). Denver likes to blitz and finished No. 2 in the NFL in opponent passer rating against the blitz (69.4).

CBs Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. have both been selected for the Pro Bowl. Harris Jr. usually moves into the slot in the sub-package nickel and CB/S Bradley Roby normally plays outside in such situations. But the last time the Broncos played the Steelers, they had Harris Jr. follow Brown. Talib has the most interceptions by a CB (30) and the most interception returns for a touchdown (eight) since he entered the NFL in 2008. Ward is second among NFL DBs with 19 tackles for a loss since 2013. The secondary likes press-man coverage and expects to win one-on-one matchups for as long as it takes the pass rush to get home, which often isn’t very long.

 S Omar Bolden has an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown this season but has been inactive the last four games. WR Jordan Norwood had a 71-yard touchdown return on a punt that was downed but wasn’t covered by the Steelers (it was called back on an illegal substitution penalty). K Brandon McManus had touchbacks on 70.4 percent of his kickoffs (fourth in the NFL) and had five field goals of 50-plus yards (5-for-7), including 56- and 57-yard efforts on Sept. 13 against Baltimore.

Mike Tomlin is more concerned with execution than elevation. “I don’t care about altitude,” he said. But the Broncos like to push the tempo at home when applicable, especially in the second half, in an effort to maximize the perceived altitude factor. Can the Steelers hold up for 60 minutes or longer if they have to at Mile High? Denver’s up-tempo approach hurt the Steelers in the teams’ first meeting.

“I’m more confident in them. They have a good idea that this doesn’t come along very often. Each step you take in advancing toward the Super Bowl, you have to raise your level of intensity a little more. I think they’re enjoying that part of it.

“Those guys are competitors and I’m proud of them for that, being the competitors that they are. We’re not always a great defense but they do a lot of good things a lot of times.” - defensive coordinator Keith Butler on the defense.

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