Friday, January 15, 2016

AFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Steelers vs Broncos

No Antonio Brown means the depth of the Steelers' receiving corps will be tested Mandatory Credit Jason Bridge USA Today Sports

Pittsburgh Overview

The Steelers are coming of one of the most dramatic games in postseason history.  While there is plenty to unpack in regards to that game, the beauty of surviving and advancing is that there is no time to dwell.  The Steelers will, however, have to deal with the aftermath of the contest; namely, the injury status of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.  Pittsburgh spent four games without their lead signal-caller, and while it is thought that Big Ben will start, no one has any idea how effective he will be. By the end of the playoff game against the Bengals, he admitted that he couldn’t throw the ball down the field.  Additionally, with Brown in the concussion protocol and officially out for this week's contest, the passing game may look far different from the unit that put up the third most yards in the League this season.

Denver Overview

Perhaps the only playoff team with more questions at quarterback than the Steelers, is the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning started the first ten games of the season before getting pulled due to injury and poor play. Seven weeks later, he had regained his starting spot from Brock Osweiler and led Denver to a victory and the AFC West title.  While the melodrama played out at the Quarterback position, the defense was the real star of the show; they were first in yards allowed, 1st in sacks, 1st in pass yards allowed, 3rd in Pass TDs allowed…just rest assured they were beasts.  Can they carry Peyton into glory and a second title?

Will Manning get his storybook ending? Mandatory Credit USA Today Sports


*Of note, these teams played in week 15 with the Steelers winning 34-27, but due to injuries and personnel changes, I decided against including game analysis from that contest in this breakdown

Steelers Offense vs Broncos Defense

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Vontaze Burfict knocked out Roethlisberger, Brown, and LeVeon Bell.  With either backups or an injured version of the player suiting up Sunday, there is virtually no telling how effective they will be.  The team still has Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton (and expect more snaps for Darrius Heyward-Bey as they go to their three WR lineup), but the injury to Brown is obviously a game changer.  Brown amassed over 1800 yards and 136 receptions, with Roethlisberger ailing and his favorite target gone, how will the Steelers score?

The Broncos defense is lights out, they have pass rushers  Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware among others, and guys in the secondary like Aqib Talib and Chris Harris capable of taking advantage of mistakes.  Even their run defense is stout, ranking 1st in rush yards allowed per attempt.  Good Luck to a depleted Steelers offense, theyre going to need a couple of big plays against the team that gives up the least amount of yards per drive in the league.

Broncos Offense vs Steelers Defense

The Broncos offense under Peyton Manning was amongst the least effective in the League.  Sure, they started the season with seven straight wins, but they ranked last in yards per rush and were in the bottom third in yards per pass attempt.  The running game looked better than earlier in the season when Manning took over in the last game of the season, but was that a result of opponent (San Diego) or something more?  There had been some friction between Manning and Kubiak in regards to system (namely whether Manning would be in the shotgun, pistol, or under center), but if they are to win, they need to be on one accord.

In a strange twist, the much-maligned defense may need to carry the load with so many question marks on the other side of the ball for the Steelers.  They were pretty porous in the secondary, giving up the third most passing yards per game.  Perhaps that was due to the team’s aggressive style; according to Pro Football Focus they blitzed at the 5th highest percentage in the League.  The boom or bust style allowed opponents to gain yards, but helped to garner the 6th most interceptions in the NFL.  Such gambles against a guy with a weak arm and a supercomputer brain seem like it would be foolhardy; but can the Steelers really change who they are as a defense this late in the season?

Outcome: The only elite unit in this game is the Broncos defense.  I have no idea what we will get out of these two quarterbacks (who would’ve thought we’d say that about a Big Ben and Peyton “showdown”?), and I can’t see the Steelers putting up many points against Denver; 20-10 Denver.
Line: Even
Over/Under: 45

**All stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted

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