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Broncos at Steelers: 11 things to watch for

An early must-win game for the Broncos.

Fresh off their first loss to the Ravens and facing questions about their quarterbacks, pass catchers, offensive line, and schedule, Denver needs to secure the win in order to keep pace in the very competitive AFC. On the other sideline, the Steelers find their season clinging to life support and need a win for the Big Ben retirement tour to look like more than an expensive act of sentimentality. Both the Broncos and the Steelers enter this week’s contest at a crossroads. Both badly need a win.

Here’s what I’m looking for today.

Special Teams

1. Can McMahon stay out of the way?

We’re four games into the 2021 slate and the Broncos have already given up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a partially blocked punt, and Devin Duvernay’s career-long, 42-yard punt return.

There are 13 games to go.

Today the coverage units will once again fall under the spotlight as the Broncos face off against one of the more dangerous returners in the league in Ray-Ray McCloud. A sixth round pick who bounced from the Bills to the Panthers before finding his way to Pittsburgh, he’s averaging 10.4 yards per punt return and 26.6 on kickoffs. He’s had eight fumbles in his career, three since joining the Steelers last year.

On the other side of the coin, the Broncos could find some room to operate today, as Pittsburgh’s coverage units are nothing special. Tom McMahon shared on Friday that he has more capable returners on the ‘21 Broncos than at any other point in his career. It’d be nice to see it amount to something. Not to sound too dour, but it’s worth noting that for all the issues around them, both Brandon McManus and Sam Martin have done their part so far. Let’s hope that keeps up.

Defense

2. Is the Broncos defense legitimate?

3. Do Darby and/or Surtain II play?

4. Does the secondary live up to the billing?

5. Can the rush get home?

6. Turnovers?

On paper, it looks like Denver should completely smother Pittsburgh’s offense. The Steelers offense currently ranks among the seven worst in the league, behind teams like the Lions and Eagles. Last Thursday, ESPN’s Mina Kimes pointed out that Peyton Manning’s swan song looked better than what Ben Roethlisberger has shown thus far. As Predominantly Orange’s Robby Davis pointed out on Friday, their running game is completely ineffective.

Good units win when they’re supposed to. The Steelers will start a 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger who’s a shell of himself behind an injury-plagued offensive line. While the Broncos spoke with respect during the pressers leading up to the game, they almost have to smell the blood in the water. This should be a showcase game for Vic Fangio, Von Miller, Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, Alexander Johnson, and the New Fly Zone.

Availability could alter the defense we see this week, of course. Ronald Darby was just activated off Injured Reserve, but Fangio said he’d play limited snaps in his return from a hamstring injury. Patrick Surtain II picked up an injury in the Ravens game and missed practice earlier this week. He’s listed as questionable for the game.

If neither corner is on the field, I expect Bryce Callahan to slide out from the nickel to play the right corner in base personnel. Nate Hairston would step in to man the slot in nickel and dime. Callahan’s quietly been quite good this season, but I do have some concern about how much size he gives up to the Steelers’ 6’4, 238 lb. Chase Claypool.

I’m quite eager to see how the secondary shakes out in the event all four of the starting caliber corners are healthy. Surtain has played his way into a starting job and it’s hard to imagine anyone wants to deny the rookie playing time. Darby’s in the first year of a three-year contract worth $30 million, and Kyle Fuller is playing so well it’d be stupid to move him off the left corner. While there’s been a few one-on-one plays that didn’t go his way, thanks to Fuller the Broncos are currently the best pass defense in football on throws to the right by DVOA.

Through four games the Steelers have used 11 personnel on 81% of their offensive snaps this year. The rotation of Claypool, Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith Schuster, and James Edwards bring the kind of mismatch potential to find success. There’s been issues with drops, but the limiting factor in 2021 is Ben Roethlisberger. When they’ve run the ball out of these three receiver sets, they’ve averaged 2.6 yards per carry. If ever there was a time to go dime heavy, today may be it.

The future Hall of Famer has been completely dependent on the quick game and manufactured touches this season, and he’s lost all but the remnants of his past mobility. Still, Roethlisberger is a load to bring down in the pocket, and he’s capable of winning pre-snap against the Broncos disguises, but the cold, hard truth is Ben is washed.

Making matters worse for the 39-year-old quarterback is the tattered remains of the Steelers offensive line. Due to cap constraints and David DeCastro’s retirement, the original starting group inspired little confidence. Injuries to Zach Banner, Chukwuma Okorafor, and Kevin Dotson have left Pittsburgh starting two rookies. Okorafor was a full participant in practice this week and could suit up if Pittsburgh wants to sit Dan Moore or Joe Haeg.

Offense

7. What’s Shurmur’s plan for the ground game?

8. Can the Broncos slow down T.J. Watt?

9. Will Cameron Heyward wreak havoc?

10. Can the pass catchers create separation?

11. How does Teddy Bridgewater hold up?

I took issue with Pat Shurmur’s game plan for the Ravens this week because I think he did a poor job maximizing where the Broncos had advantages in the week four loss. Keep in mind that losing a quarterback at halftime probably doomed the offense regardless, and Wink Martindale is one of the better defensive coordinators in the league. Like any matchup, a coaching loss one week doesn’t necessarily doom the whole season.

The Broncos offense has its work cut out for it in the weeks ahead, which isn’t going to do Shurmur any favors. First, the good news: Both Graham Glasgow and Dalton Risner look like they’ll suit up today. As I write this, Teddy Bridgewater is set to play after a concussion knocked him out of the Ravens game. Keep in mind that concussions are unpredictable and he could still be held out, which would give Drew Lock his first start of his third season. Now the bad news: Courtland Sutton hurt an ankle in Friday’s practice and looks like a game time decision, while Albert Okwuegbunam hurt a hamstring and landed on Injured Reserve Saturday.

If Sutton can’t play or is seriously hobbled, the Broncos are down to one proven receiver in Tim Patrick, at least until David Moore is truly integrated into the offense. Kendall Hinton brings one career catch into the game and Diontae Spencer’s best as a return specialist. The Broncos pulled Tyrie Cleveland off the practice squad for the game, but it may be optimistic to hope for more than meaningful snaps on special teams. The tight end room losing Okwuegbunam is quietly devastating because of the way he and Noah Fant made 12 personnel a dangerous passing grouping. Eric Saubert is a good blocker, but he’s best as a tertiary receiver. Andrew Beck is an H-back who is best on swings or checkdowns out of the backfield.

The Steelers have their own Sutton issue today, as Cam Sutton is out with a groin injury. His absence leaves a shaky secondary without its best cornerback. Joe Haden looks as if he’s lost a step and Jamie Pierre has been a mark for opposing quarterbacks. Pittsburgh is among the six worst teams in the league at defending short passes by DVOA, so you’ll forgive me for ignoring any dink and dunk complaints levied at Bridgewater today. Playing the quick game is also going to give the Broncos their best chance at minimizing the damage T.J. Watt inflicts on the pocket.

The depleted receiving corps. and the threat of Watt taking over the game should encourage Shurmur to lean on Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. The veteran was consistently effective against the Ravens, while the rookie mixed some mistakes with explosiveness and elite contact balance. Leaning heavily on the ground game could lead to a low-scoring, drawn out affair, but one the Broncos should win.

Neither Risner or Glasgow will get a chance to ease into action this week, as 32-year-old Cameron Heyward remains a terror against the run and pass. As Fangio touched on this week, the Steelers will move Heyward around to exploit mismatches. Look for him to log some snaps at nose to attack Lloyd Cushenberry.

“I’ve always followed him and watched him. His dad, Craig was with us in New Orleans. We drafted him. I’ve kind of always followed him. He’s a hell of a player. He’s real stout against the run, a good pass rusher and chases the ball. Good instincts. He’s played there his entire career, so he knows the system. They move him around. He’s really one of the top D linemen in the league—interior D linemen.”

With both Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu on Injured Reserve, the line shouldn’t be under siege quite like the last time Denver saw this Pittsburgh defense. This Steelers defensive front is down to one starter the Broncos faced a year ago. To make matters worse in the Steel city, backup nose tackle Carlos Davis is out again with a knee injury, and without Davis, Pittsburgh is counting on the 295 lb. Isaiah Buggs to hold down most of the snaps at nose out of the base 3-4.

Denver could, and probably should take advantage by playing out of 12, 21, or 22 and running a heavy dose of inside zone and duo. Given the issues defending off right tackle, power could also be huge for the ground game if Risner is up to all the pulling. The strategy this week shouldn’t be overly complicated: run where Heyward ain’t.

Final Thoughts

A 3-1 start brings with it big questions about what this Broncos roster really is. They outcoached and handily beat the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New York Jets. Along the way they picked up significant injuries at every corner, which helped play a role in a jarring 23-7 wipeout against the Ravens.

Looking around the playoff landscape and what lies ahead on the 2021 schedule, the margin for error is painfully thin for these banged up Broncos. After Pittsburgh, Denver will play the Raiders and Browns within a four day span. There’s a chance Jerry Jeudy returns for Cleveland, but they’ll play both games without Okwuegbunam. The 1-3 Steelers look like the last vulnerable opponent in the near term.

If Teddy Bridgewater stays upright and the defense plays to their potential today, this shouldn’t be a close game. The injury-plagued receiving corps complicates things, but there’s ways to mitigate those issues. It falls on the Broncos to execute. It’s only October, but this should feel like a playoff game.

Let’s hope they’re up to it.