Last week the Denver Broncos experienced a bitter loss to the Oakland Raiders that negatively impacted their ability to obtain the AFC's highest seeding in the playoffs. What is even more troublesome is that such a loss could be a reason why the team might slip out of the playoffs entirely.
While improbable, it is a possibility if the Chiefs, Steelers, Jets and Bengals win their final three games. This weekend the Broncos will enter hostile territory when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in a gridiron battle that has meaningful playoff implications for both squads.
While the Broncos are clinging on to a two game lead in the AFC West and currently are projected as the third seed in the AFC, the Steelers are on the outside looking in with an 8-5 record. They are on a roll as of late, winning four of their last five games and have been averaging over 30 points per contest during that time frame. The hallmark of Sunday's affair will be whether or not the Steelers productive offense can topple Denver's prolific defense — and if it is a close game — can Denver's offense be efficient enough to lead them to victory?
How will it all play out? You will just have to tune in this Sunday and see for yourselves, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on Denver's upcoming match-up against Pittsburgh.
Who's Hot for Pittsburgh
Wide Receiver Antonio Brown: The Steelers boast a handful of talented weapons at wide receiver, but no player has been more clutch or premier for them over the past few seasons than wide receiver Antonio Brown. He is the ultimate threat at the position, and despite his small stature, plays bigger than some of the largest players at his position in the NFL.
Over the past five games, Brown has caught 48 passes for 679 yards and four touchdowns and has even returned a punt for a score. No matter where he is on the field, he has the ability to take it to the house every time he gets his hands on the ball. It will be interesting to see how the Broncos handle Brown's play-making abilities on Sunday. If they want to escape Heinz Field with a victory, limiting his explosiveness will certainly be a prime factor for a winning formula.
Who's Not Hot for Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh's Passing Defense: If there was any game where Gary Kubiak should take the chains off of Brock Osweiler and let him loose, Sunday's affair against Pittsburgh would be the prime time to do so. While the Steelers have had a relatively solid defense against the run and are only allowing 20 points per game on the season, their pass defense has been absolutely atrocious and ranks 31st in the entire NFL.
On average, they give up almost 8 yards per pass play and have surrendered 25 touchdowns to opposing teams. They are struggling to force turnovers and aren't getting many third down stops as a result of their poor play on the back end. Ultimately, it is a secondary filled with holes, and is a favorable match-up that Denver could exploit with their plethora weapons on the offensive side of the ball.
But will that be there game plan? If it isn't already, it most certainly should be. It is time for Kubiak to take off the training wheels and back away from his ultra-conservative offensive approach that has hindered the Broncos offense in the past several games. There is no better time than now to unleash Osweiler. Open up the playbook and stretch the field vertically with an aerial assault led by Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of the teams' receivers and tight ends.
Dominate this game through a full fledged aerial assault. Enough with the dink-and-dunk, half-field passing game. Take a chance and let the young quarterback show if he has what it takes to make plays in big games. The Steelers defense hasn't been able to stop many passing attacks in the NFL this season. Why not exploit that even further to your own benefit?
Steelers fans don't really believe in the Broncos
The Denver Broncos face the Pittsburgh Steelers in a huge game with big time playoff implications. This week I spoke with Jeff Hartman from behindthesteelcurtain.com to get some insights on the Steelers and the challenges Denver faces this week.
The Match Up to Watch
The No Fly Zone vs. Pittsburgh's Wide Receivers: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr. and Bradley Roby might just be the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL, but the trio of wide receivers Pittsburgh has in Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton may be the most talented The No Fly Zone has had to go up against the entire season. This is my biggest match-up of the week to watch and one that will certainly carry it's amount of weight in regard to who wins or loses on Sunday.
On any given day, the three aforementioned receivers could put up highlight reel performances. (See: Brown vs. Oakland, Bryant vs. Indianapolis and Wheaton vs. Seattle) So how can the Broncos effectively stop them?
First and foremost, I expect Wade Phillips to be very creative in his play-calling and put a ton of pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. However, a lion's share of the work will be dependent on the man-to-man coverage of each receiver by members of our secondary. If I were Phillips, I would put Harris on Brown and put his supreme coverage skills to the test. By doing so, that would allow Denver to put Talib, their biggest cornerback on Bryant, who is Pittsburgh's biggest receiver and have Roby line up opposite of Wheaton. Based on the strengths and weaknesses of all players involved, I feel that those match-ups would be the most beneficial to shutting down Pittsburgh's aerial attack.
Don't be surprised if Pittsburgh gets creative and finds ways to shift those receivers into the middle of the field to create plays in space against our linebackers and furthermore, take chances deep down the middle of the field against against our reserve safety depth.
Sunday's game against the Steelers will be the ultimate test of will power and serve as a measuring stick to see if this Broncos team has the fortitude to rebound after a humiliating loss against the Raiders last weekend. Though it is just one game, it is one that both teams desperately desire in order to make their post-season aspirations come to fruition. I expect this to be one of the hardest fought battles of the entire season and a very close game.
If the Broncos are to win on Sunday, they will have to abandon their conservative nature on offense and let it all hang out against the Steelers on the road. It is a significant risk, but one that must be made in order to help change the woeful tide and pace the teams' offense has been on for the past several weeks. If they go with the "more of the same" approach and fail to make proper adjustments on the offensive side of the ball, I have little confidence that Denver can squeak this one out.
Pittsburgh 23, Denver 17.