Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) vs. Denver Broncos (10-3)
Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015
Here is a look at the statistical leaders for the both the Steelers and Broncos heading into the Week 15 contest at Heinz Field.
SERIES HISTORY: **Broncos lead, 14-7-1 (Broncos lead, 4-3, postseason)
LAST MEETING: Broncos 31, Steelers 19, Sept. 9, 2012, Sports Authority Field at Mile High: CB Tracy Porter intercepted QB Ben Roethlisberger and returned the ball 43 yards for a touchdown for the score that sealed the deal with less than two minutes remaining. The Steelers took a 19-14 fourth-quarter lead on a 3-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger to WR Mike Wallace. But the Broncos scored the game's final 17 points. Roethlisberger finished with 245 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns in addition to the interception. QB Peyton Manning threw for 253 yards and two TDs and wasn't intercepted.
LAST TIME OUT:The Steelers established an early 13-0 lead and maintained control the rest of the way in a 33-20 win last Sunday in Cincinnati. The Broncos weren't able to produce a touchdown in a 15-12 loss to the Raiders in Denver.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL: ** The Steelers will see the same offense they saw in Baltimore last season, when Broncos first-year head coach Gary Kubiak was the Ravens' offensive coordinator.
QB Brock Osweiler has started the last four games in place of Peyton Manning and has been serviceable under the circumstances (3-1 with an 85.4 passer rating). Osweiler, a fourth-year pro, has also been sacked 17 times (five times by the Raiders' Khalil Mack last Sunday). At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, Osweiler has a big arm. He's been making smart decisions on first and second down, when the ball has been coming out of the pocket relatively quickly. But if that first option isn't readily available on third-and-medium or third-and-long he tends to hold onto the ball and the offensive line tends to break down. OT Ryan Clady and OT Ty Sambrailo are on injured reserve, and they were supposed to be the starters. And C Matt Paradis (6-3, 300) is an under-sized first-year pro and first-year starter. The offensive line has been vulnerable in pass protection.
WR Emmanuel Sanders is the deep threat (13.8 per catch, four TDs) and Demaryius Thomas the big-body (6-3, 229) possession-type receiver. The Broncos love crossing routes and misdirection passes on early downs. This is not a vertical offense. The misdirection stuff works when the outside-zone running game gets rolling. The Broncos love to cut-block the backside pursuit to create a cutback lane or run a play-action bootleg off of the outside-zone run action. The base look includes two tight ends (Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis) along with two receivers and the Broncos aren't opposed to using a tight end in the slot. The backs (Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson) are basically interchangeable (Anderson is bigger and Hillman is faster). Denver has had five 100-yard rushers this season, trailing only Minnesota (six) and Pittsburgh (six) in that department.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL: **They'll put their streak of five consecutive games with at least 30 points on the line against a defense that leads the NFL in points per game (17.3), yards per game (272.5), passing yards per game (188.2), sacks (44) and defensive touchdowns (five).
The stat that might matter most of all is the 3.95 yards the Broncos are allowing on an average first down (second in the NFL to Carolina's 3.87). When Denver can get a team in third-and-long it can come after the passer and bad things can happen to an offense that finds itself in such a predicament. LB Von Miller, who might be the best defensive player the Steelers will have seen to date, has a sack in five consecutive games and 10 on the season. LB DeMarcus Ware lines up opposite Miller on third downs. Ware didn't have a sack in the loss to Oakland, his first game back after a four-game absence, but he had 6.5 in the first seven games this season.
The Broncos trust their pass rush enough to rely on press-man coverage outside with a safety in the box for run support and a single-high safety deep. CB Aqib Talib has the most interceptions at his position (30) and the most interceptions returned for touchdowns in the league (eight) since he entered the NFL in 2008. SS T.J. Ward is second among NFL DBs with 19 tackles for a loss since 2013, behind only Mark Barron of Tampa Bay/St. Louis (20). Ward has 5.5 sacks and 13.5 run-stuffs in that span. The pass rush and the secondary are driving forces for a Broncos' defense that has yet to surrender 30 points or allow a 300-yard passer this season. SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS:Broncos K Brandon McManus hit from 57, 56, 43 and 33 yards away in the opener against Baltimore and became the second player in NFL history to convert two field goals of 56 yards or longer in the same game (Greg Zuerlein, St. Louis, 9/3012). McManus is 26-for-30 on field goals this season (5-for-7 from 50-plus) and has produced touchbacks on 70.6 percent of his kickoffs the past two seasons. S Omar Bolden has an 83-yad punt return for a TD this season but Sanders is the primary guy (6.1 per on 17 attempts). Steelers P Jordan Berry hasn't had a punt returned in four consecutive games (six total) and had one of five returned (for 1 yard) on Nov. 8 against Oakland.
THE X-FACTOR:Does momentum matter? The Steelers opened the season at 4-4 through their first eight games and have gone 4-1 since. The Broncos opened at 7-0 through their first seven games and have gone 3-3 since.THEY SAID IT:"They're hot because they haven't played us yet. A lot of teams were hot before they played us." - Ward to the Denver Post on the Steelers.