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Breaking down the tape: Secondary perspective

A look back at the Steelers' 34-27 victory over the Broncos via the magic of the DVR:


Photos from the last matchup vs the Broncos at Heinz Field on December 20th, 2015.

BATTLE LEVEL:** The Broncos played minus both of their starting safeties but still played with the mindset of contesting everything they could contest in the secondary.

That's what Denver does.

The Steelers' wide receivers fought fire with fire.

Two examples of the competitiveness QB Ben Roethlisberger's pass-catchers demonstrated:

Third-and-11, Steelers' 41-yard line, third quarter: WR Markus Wheaton creates a little separation by getting both hands on CB Brandon Roby's back and shoving Roby face-first to the turf before hauling in a Roethlisberger pass for a 13 yards and a first down.

Roby gets up gesturing for a penalty but no flag for offensive pass interference is thrown.

Wheaton's effort follows by one snap WR Antonio Brown doing what needs to be done on second-and-19 from the Steelers' 33. Brown and CB Chris Harris Jr. both go up for a pass, but Brown does so shoving Harris Jr. with his left hand while reaching for the ball with his right as Harris Jr. reaches for the ball with both hands. Brown ends up collecting a deflection for a gain of 8, which sets up the third-down conversion to Wheaton.

Sometimes, that's how touchdown drives are extended.

WR Martavis Bryant, who hasn't yet consistently made combat-type catches on 50-50 balls at this early stage of his career, also got into the act.

Third-and-4, Steelers' 9, third quarter: CB Aqib Talib and the ball arrive at Bryant simultaneously but Bryant catches the pass and refuses to let Talib wrestle the ball from his grasp. Eventually, Talib gives up on the ball and resorts to tackling Bryant.

First down, Steelers.

"When you play this team, the Denver Broncos, these defensive backs, you're going to have to make a lot of contested throws," CBS color analyst Phil Simms pointed out at one juncture.

Steelers receivers understood contested catches were also required and repeatedly delivered.


PRESSURE AND COVERAGE:** Defensive coordinator Keith Butler isn't anti-blitz but he's also emphasized since taking over the need at times to generate pressure with a four-man pass rush.

The Steelers dial up four-man pressure on four consecutive snaps after an interception at the Steelers' 41 with 2:01 remaining in regulation gave the Broncos one more chance to tie the game.

First-and-10: QB Brock Osweiler throws from a collapsing pocket for TE Owen Daniels. The pass falls incomplete.

Second-and-10: DE Cam Heyward gets in Osweiler's face and helps influence an incomplete throw for WR Emmanuel Sanders.

Third-and-10: LB Jarvis Jones gets pressure on another pass to Sanders that falls incomplete.

Fourth-and-10: LB Arthur Moats and DE Stephon Tuitt pressure Osweiler from both sides on what becomes Osweiler's final incompletion, another pass from Sanders.

The Steelers went with five defensive backs on first and second down and six DBs (S Robert Golden replaced LB Lawrence Timmons) on third and fourth down and were able to close the game out playing coverage behind a four-man rush on all four downs.

The suspicion is Butler appreciated that as much as anyone.


Game action as the Steelers hosted the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field.

SECONDARY PERSPECTIVE:** The Steelers' ability to play vastly-improved pass defense throughout their second-half comeback didn't go unnoticed.


Simms' observation on the Broncos' offense early in the first half: "This is a day to get well, to get your passing game in shape. The Pittsburgh Steelers, this defense, they struggle, no question, against the pass."

And play-by-play man Jim Nantz' assessment of the Steelers' defense late in the fourth quarter: "That much-maligned secondary has come up big in the second half."

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