By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
This Sunday afternoon, two AFC powers face-off with huge playoff implications as the Denver Broncos come to the Steel City to compete against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams will enter Heinz Field on Sunday with different motivations: the Broncos, at 10-3, are trying to keep pace with the 10-3 Cincinnati Bengals and the 11-2 New England Patriots for a first-round bye in the playoffs, while the Steelers, 8-5, are merely trying to keep their wild-card hopes alive. A loss for either team could shake-up the playoff landscape.
Although the two teams compare rather well against each other, there are a few things the Steelers must accomplish if they plan on coming out of the game at 9-5.
1. The offense must continue to produce huge numbers.
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Steelers offense has been one of the best in the league, averaging 26.5 points per game and 404.8 yards per game, which is second in the league. These numbers are impressive when you consider the amount of injuries and suspensions the team has faced this season. Yet, these numbers do not tell the whole story of just how effective the team has been playing as of late. Since week 9, the team has scored no less than 30 points, averaging 35.2 points per game. Additionally, they rank #1 in the league in total offense (494 YPG) and passing offense (383 YPG) in that same span.
On the opposite side, the Broncos have been equally as impressive, ranking as the NFL’s #1 defense. They have allowed an NFL best 17.3 points per game, 272.5 yards per game of total defense, 188.2 passing yards per game, and have amassed 44 sacks. Add in the fact that the Broncos defense has not allowed a 300-yard passer all year and no team has put up 30+ points, this is arguably the best defense the Steelers will face all season.
This is not the first time the Steelers have faced elite defenses, as they put up 33 against the Bengals and 30 against the Seahawks in recent weeks, which are the second and third best scoring defenses in the league, respectively.
To win this matchup, it is vital that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers air-show continue to put up gaudy numbers that the Broncos have not seen all season.
2. The Steelers pass-rush must continue to improve.
Since taking over for an injured Peyton Manning, Broncos back-up QB Brock Osweiler has been sacked 17 times in just 4 starts. Even though 5 of these sacks came last week against the Raiders Khalil Mack, Osweiler is meeting the turf at an alarming rate. Steelers pass-rush has been much improved this season, with 38 sacks this season, which is 5th best in the league. The Steelers defense does not boast a premier pass-rusher like Broncos OLB Von Miller, but defensive coordinator Keith Butler has created ways to bring players off the edge from different levels. This has created some confusion for opposing QB’s and has allowed the Steelers D to get the job done by producing sacks. For the Steelers to be successful, they must create pressure on the young and relatively inexperienced Brock Osweiler and cause him to make mistakes.
3. The Steelers must win important individual matchup’s.
Football is a team sport with a lot of collective effort. Regardless of this, there are matchup’s on each side of the ball that can help swing the direction a game is heading. There are two important matchup’s to watch on Sunday that can swing the games momentum in the blink of an eye.
OT Marcus Gilbert Vs. OLB Von Miller
Since entering the league, Broncos OLB Von Miller has been considered to be one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers. Miller has recorded a sack in 5 straight games and has 10 total on the season, which is the 8th best in the league. Marcus Gilbert, on the other hand, has been a steadily improving tackle on the Steelers offensive line since the arrival of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. This season, Gilbert has allowed only 1 sack, which came last week during a play that is commonly referred to as a “coverage sack” because Roethlisberger could not find an open man down the field and protection on the line eventually gave way. If Gilbert can keep Miller away from Big Ben and give him time to throw the ball, the team will be well on their way to continue their offensive dominance.
Steelers Wide Receivers Vs. Broncos Cornerbacks
Steelers WR Antonio Brown currently ranks second in the league with 1,397 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. Across the field from him is Martavis Bryant, one of the best up-and-coming deep threats in the league. Rounding out the group is Markus Wheaton, who exploded onto the scene against the Seahawks and has become an even bigger part of the offense ever since. The Broncos boast one of the deepest groups of cornerbacks in the NFL, with Pro Bowlers Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. starting and Bradley Roby rounding out the group.
The Steelers receivers have not been truly shut down all season, with someone always being able to step up to produce. The Broncos cornerbacks have prevented big production from some of the biggest names in the game like Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Calvin Johnson, and Randall Cobb. The Steelers receiving trio must be the first to put up big statistical production if they expect to come out of the game with a win and prove that the Broncos secondary is in fact beatable.
PREDICTION: Steelers 33, Broncos 27
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