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Scouting the enemy: Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Denver Broncos will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon. The Steelers are the third team in a row the Broncos will face that are on a five-game winning streak.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos defied the odds and silenced most analysts and pundits last weekend with their upset victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. The Broncos are certainly a better team than their record indicates, but at the end of the day that really doesn’t matter much. What matters is getting the results on the field that end up with another mark in the win column.

On Sunday afternoon, the Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise that has won six games in a row and are undefeated on the road this season. In fact, it seems like the Broncos haven’t had any luck in recent weeks, facing a gauntlet stretch of three teams who have been on a five game winning streak. That being said, it won’t be an easy path to victory against the Steelers, but anything is possible. Pittsburgh sports a lethal offense ranked in the top five, as well as a staunch defense that ranks in the top ten.

Fans across Broncos Country are hopeful the franchise can turn things up a notch in front of a hometown crowd and defy the odds once more. What will it take for a Broncos’ victory on Sunday? Let’s take a deeper look into the Steelers to find out.

A glance at the Steelers’ offense

The Broncos have long been considered one of the National Football League’s most competitive franchises. It has been over four decades since they have had back-to-back losing seasons — which is the longest active streak in all of football.

Next to the Broncos, the Steelers can be considered one of the most dominant and consistent franchises on the planet. Since 2004, the Steelers have been led by Ben Roethlisberger at the quarterback position who is undoubtedly a Hall of Fame player. In that time frame they have earned three Super Bowl appearances with two victories. But it’s not just Roethlisberger’s presence that has made the Steelers an annual contender.

Since taking over for Bill Cowher in 2007, the Steelers haven’t endured a losing season under the guidance of head coach Mike Tomlin. Moreover, they have only had three seasons during the Tomlin Era that the team hasn’t had double-digits in the win column. That’s beyond impressive and a testament to Tomlin’s coaching prowess. The Steelers are living proof that a franchise quarterback and a competent head coach can go a long way with respect to success and longevity in the league, but it also takes a great supporting cast too.

With Le’veon Bell sitting out the 2018 season, the Steelers have relied upon second-year running back James Connor to be their workhorse at the position. No Bell? No problem. Connor has been just as good if not better than Bell ever was. That may seem like a stretch, but when you realize could very well break Bell’s record of over 2,200 yards from scrimmage in 2014 — you begin to see where that sentiment comes from.

In ten games he hasn’t let them down, amassing 796 yards on 173 carries and ten touchdowns. He has also been a force in the receiving game, reeling in 45 receptions for 411 yards and a score. The Broncos can’t underestimate him on Sunday and will need to be cognizant of his dual-threat abilities in order to keep his impact to a minimum. But he isn’t the only major weapon on the Steelers they need to be aware of.

Antonio Brown is arguably the best receiver in the game, but would you be surprised if I told you he isn’t their leading receiver in 2018? That honor goes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who made a tremendous impact as a rookie, but has taken his talents to a new level this year. On the season, Smith-Schuster 64 receptions for 866 yards and three touchdowns this year. The Steelers have also gotten quality production from their tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James, who have combined for 55 catches, 761 yards and five touchdowns. The only thing that seems to be missing from their offense is a dynamic third wide receiver, but the team is hopeful that second-round draft pick James Washington eventually becomes that player.

A glance at the Steelers’ defense

The Steelers’ offense is a force to be reckoned with, but they are even better on the defensive side of the ball. That’s a common theme with the franchise, who has a long and storied history of ferocious defenses that can strike fear in the hearts of their opponents. Year in and year out, you always seem to find the Steelers’ defense at a top of league-wide rankings and this season is no different.

Overall, it’s a top ten unit that is effective against the run and the pass. They are great at former, holding opponents to just 99 yards per game. Furthermore, they don’t give up too much ground through the air and are allowing just 227 yards on average in that regard. Whether it’s points or yards, they are hard to come by and it’s a primary reason the Steelers are one of the best teams in the NFL.

What concerns me most is their pass rush, which has a league-leading 37 sacks on the season. Ten of those sacks have come courtesy of outside linebacker T.J. Watt who has been a revelation for them defensively this season. They have six other players on their roster who have 2.5 or more sacks, which means they have a deep and diverse set of defenders who can get after opposing quarterbacks. The Broncos’ patchwork offensive line did great against the Chargers, and they will have to do an even better job of protecting Case Keenum this weekend if they want to win.

Keys to the game and matchups to watch

ICYMI — this is what it will take for the Broncos to win on Sunday.

As far as match up’s go, I want to see how Bradley Roby performs against Smith-Schuster. He has cleared concussion protocol and is good to go, but going up one-on-one against Smith-Schuster will be one heck of a challenge. Roby has been up and down all season long, so I’m hoping we see the “great” version of him tomorrow afternoon.

Outside of the fourth quarter in last week’s game, Emmanuel Sanders was rather quiet. I fully expect him to take things up a notch facing his former team this weekend. Two-time Pro-Bowler Joe Haden will likely be shadowing Sanders all game long, so this is a match up you will want to keep your eye on closely as the game transpiers.

Hart’s Prediction

As I stated earlier, I believe the Broncos are a much better team than their record indicates. They have faced a tough group of teams as of late and a handful of games have come down to the wire. If this game was on the road, I would have my prediction going the opposite direction. Last week’s win over the Chargers provided a much needed confidence boost for the Broncos. I think that spark carries forward this week against the Steelers and believe the team comes out with another inspiring fourth quarter comeback victory. Why not?

Broncos 23, Steelers 20.