I mentioned the Broncos playoff odds for Horse Tracks yesterday and planned to spend a bit of GIF Horse going over how, exactly Denver sprung such an improbably upset. Then Football Outsiders chose the Broncos-Chargers game as their upset of the week, so to avoid redundancy, I’ll strongly recommend Rivers McCown’s piece to you.
Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Chargers | Football Outsiders
How do you lose a game you had a 90 percent chance to win twice in the last three minutes? Some Chargers Shit.
Are you back? Alright, so obviously Rivers worst day of 2018 was a big part of the win, but other factors played key roles. Sutton, Royce Freeman, and Lindsay, obviously, but let’s take a quick look at how the Broncos managed the 3 other keys I outlined in last week’s GIF Horse.
Key #1: The Next Best James in L.A.
Derwin James has garnered a lot of love among die hard football fans for his play this year and deservedly so, but he had what may go down as the quietest 7 tackle game I can remember. For long stretches Sunday I forgot he was on the field.
Key #2 Gordon and the Improved Ground Game
Gordon had his moments: he had a long rush of 20 and caught all six of his targets for 89 yards, but half of his carries gained 2 yards or less. That’s before you account for the fact that he ran the wrong play as Los Angeles was trying to ice the game, effectively leaving the door open for Sutton and the Broncos to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
Key #3 Keeping Case Keenum away from Melvin Ingram
One of the worst parts about writing GIF Horse for Wednesday’s is that I miss the upcoming injury report. As last week’s post went live news broke that Joey Bosa would play after missing the first 9 games with an injury. That news, as well as the state of the Broncos line minus Max Garcia and Matt Paradis led to a very conservative aerial attack that saw Keenum trying to dink and dunk on one of the better defenses against just such a passing game. It was ugly as times, but the goal was met: L.A. did very little to disrupt Keenum, who finished his second straight game without a turnover. He’ll need to do it again for the Denver to start their own win streak this weekend.
1. Keenum needs to channel his inner Texan
The numbers from Sunday were a paltry 19-32 for 205 yard and no touchdowns or interceptions, but they mask how well Keenum played within the gameplan. They also would have looked better if Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders and Jeff Heuerman had held onto every ball that hit their hands.
The Steelers defense represent a far tougher test than the Chargers, though. Their philosophy is a similar one to Denver: pressure the opposing QB to mask a so-so secondary and they are very good at it. In long yardage situations Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler favors sending an additional rusher from somewhere. According to Sports Info Solutions, 17 different players have notched a pressure this season. Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt all have more than 13.
If Keenum can keep it together with bodies around him, there will be opportunities. In the games I watched, the pressure packages left receivers open for the first down at times. It’s just a matter of giving Keenum time to make the correct read. Butler is counting on passers failing to take advantage enough to consistently score points. It bit them against the Chiefs earlier in the year, but during their 6 game winning streak, he’s been right.
One player that has to be a factor for the Broncos in these situations is Heuerman. He looked like a world beater against Houston, taking advantage of holes in the zone and bailing Keenum out under pressure time and again. Pittsburgh is susceptible to tight ends, so there should be opportunities to play the binky once more. While the Broncos lost to the Texans, in many ways that gameplan was among the best I’ve seen from Bill Musgrave, who managed his veteran journeyman quarterback while still attacking the defenses weaknesses. He needs to do it again.
2. Trench Warfare
It’s gone under the radar with the number of big stars and the Le’Veon Bell contract stalemate, but the Steelers have one of the best lines in football. This may be an unpopular opinion if you have him on your fantasy team, but I dare say that Connor is mostly a product of the system and talent around him. He’s decent, for sure, but far from the engine that makes Pittsburgh’s offense go. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a threat, especially when the Steelers pull their guards to lead for him. They’re ridiculously good on runs to the right side, so Von and Wolfe have their work cut out for them this week.
As good as they are run blocking though, the line was designed to protect their Hall of Fame quarterback. Only the Saints have allowed less pressures on the year. Even when they do, Roethlisberger is famously adept at moving around in the phone booth to buy his receivers more time.
In the play above the Jaguars have Pittsburgh stopped until the safety misplays Brown’s route. The line kept Roethlisberger upright long enough to read back to his streaking receiver. The result was routinely spectacular, which is fitting for the duo. Denver’s defense is incredibly dependent on the pass rush, so the Orange Crush has got to get home. If Ben doesn’t feel them it will be a very long day.
3. The secondary needs to show up
Lost amid his interception was the fact that Chris Harris played pretty poorly in spots. Keenan Allen is infamous for flummoxing top corners with his route running, but it was far from Strap’s best performance.
At the same time, Bradley Roby had his best performance of the season. At one point prior to the interception I jokingly wondered if Harris and Roby had swapped jerseys before the game.
Against the Steelers, both will need to show up in order to put the clamps down on Ben’s dangerous duo. While Antonio Brown has the preternatural feel for Roethlisberger’s pump fakes and sandlot plays, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the leading receiver in 2018. OC Randy Fichtner has done a masterful job of scheming the 2017 3rd rounder open, he and Brown will get some plays, but the Fly Zone can’t give up anything easy or Denver has no chance.
The rest of the Steelers’ receivers are pretty ho-hum. Neither Jesse James or Ryan Switzer is likely to carry the passing attack alone. The most dangerous threat is Vance McDonald, who could present issues. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the 6’4 tight end is given a jump ball in the end zone, as Roethlisberger did just that against Jacksonville. Ben also found him on a vertical seam against the Carolina Panthers for 6. Justin Simmons could do a lot to turn around the narrative of his season by slowing McDonald down this Sunday.
It’s a lot to ask from a Broncos defense that has been a lot stronger than they get credit for this season, but if Denver wants to upset another Super Bowl contender, that’s the task in front of them.