Earlier this year we got to see both of these teams throw down in Pittsburgh. While our team represented itself well in the first half, they ultimately lost 34-27. That was in the regular season though. Now the stakes are higher. Now you lose and you go home. Now we have a QB who will their zone defense to shreds starting. And this time, they are coming to our house.
Broncos Offense vs Steelers Defense
If you've figured out what to expect from our 2015 offense, God bless your soul. Honestly, we've made some pretty good strides fundamentally as the season has worn on, but there's not been consistency in almost any facet of the O. Our QBs have switched a couple of times now. We've got what a lot of Broncos Country thinks of as the worst right tackle in professional football getting a start after getting yanked for his atrocious play in the final game of the season. Our Wide Receivers drop passes like Steve Urkel drops dimes. Our line has been so up and down you don't know if we are rushing for 200 this week or 50.
Here's what Denver has going for them though:
- Manning is supposedly healthy.
- The offensive line really has been flashing more good than bad in their run blocking in the back half of the season.
- The receivers have been taking turns at getting hot and most impressively Demaryius Thomas is starting to play dominating ball again.
- C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have been breaking teams' wills when the line gets them a hole to work with.
I like this match up for Denver if Manning of the first 9 weeks of the season doesn't show up (and by this I mean the 2 back-breaking interceptions / game). Pittsburgh just got done playing what looked to me like a grueling game against Cincinnati. Our team has gotten a week of rest with which to get healthy.
The big key to me isn't Peyton or Schofield's pass blocking (I just threw up in my mouth a little bit...). The key is what can the running game do this time around? Pittsburgh did as good a job as any team out there holding our backs to ~3.5 ypc average. We need more from them to keep things sailing smoothly and keep the offense from humming.
Also, I still think our receiving corps looks on paper like a complete mismatch for the Pittsburgh secondary. If we can connect on some intermediate and long passes, we should be able to completely dismantle them much like that first half of football Brock and company showed us.
Back to that mouth-puke stuff, seriously the match-up to watch has to be whoever lines up across from Michael Schofield should we actually start him. We've all got a big dream of Peyton riding off into the sunset in 2015 with a trophy, but this one move could be the linchpin to wadding those dreams up and throwing them into a dumpster fire.
Broncos Defense vs Steelers Offense
If Antonio Brown indeed can't play, that will be the biggest loss for the Steelers. That is bigger than Big Ben having a bum shoulder or even not being able to play. I'd take Brown over our own Thomas. I'd take him over Megatron, Dez, or A.J. Green. The guy has amazing game and made our all-pro level corners look like scrubs in the last match up.
Here's the big key for our defense though: We get Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward back for this game. Let me just key you guys in on this one more time: Darian Stewart is absolutely the MVP of this defense as far as what makes it successful. Having him back at Free Safety this week is as huge a benefit to us as Antonio Brown not playing and probably in all actuality more impactful.
The weak safety play we saw last time these two teams met was the reason we saw so many 3-step drops and passes down field. Our scrub back-ups Keo and Bush couldn't impact the plays without opening themselves up to other routes getting past them. Even if Ben Roethlisberger's arm was 100%, their offense won't be putting on a clinic this time around.
The run game of Pittsburgh put up some pretty legitimate numbers against the Bengals though. Look for them to try to get that established. I like our guys in that match up as well though. We have the best run stopping front 7 in football to my eyes. There is no weakness there for Pittsburgh to exploit (though to be fair, I would have said the same thing about the Bengal defense last week).
The key match up to me is Darian Stewart vs Ben Roethlisberger. Our defensive QB needs to keep Ben from having easy openings to throw to. If we can slow their pass attack down and defend the deep ball, we should be able to shut down their offense completely.
I like Brandon McManus and Chris Boswell. Both are young kickers who have found some consistency this year. I give McManus the advantage here though because he has what looks like a better leg for distance kicks. Boswell has only kicked 2 over 50 yards with a long of 51 while McManus has hit 5/7 with a long of 57.
Neither team has what looks like a killer return guy and both punters look fairly evenly matched on paper.
Mike Tomlin I give the edge in this match-up mainly for the sake of longevity with his team. He knows them and their capabilities very well. Regardless of how low-brow it seems that they let their players and coaches conduct business, Tomlin has that team ready to play at a high level every time they step on the field.
I'm not taking anything away from Gary Kubiak though. He's done a spectacular job with a LOT of challenges this year on the Broncos. For us to have the #1 seed and win 12 games is quite a credit to his work. While I've had a lot of questions about his decisions this year (not yanking Manning earlier, not benching Schofield, trading away Clark, not benching Schofield the offensive clusterfunk that was the pistol experiment early in the season, not benching Schofield, you get the picture), he's done nothing but look like a pretty darn good head coach so far this year.
John Elway wanted kicking and screaming. It is put up or shut up time for this team now. Last year we pansy-walked off the field at home as the Colts punched us in the mouth and we never stood up and answered them. We'd better not see anything of the sort this time. I don't care so much if we lose this game, but the how is very important.
Will we switch QBs if Manning plays poorly?
Will the team impose their will or let things come to them?
Can our defense answer the challenge of a team that lit them the hell up the last time we met?
Does our coaches have the answers if Pittsburgh adjusts like they did in week 15?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I'm pretty stoked to see what the team answers them with. It is pretty easy as I critique the team, players, and coaches to lose sight of the overall good work they've done this year. Let's see if we can keep that rolling one more week.