Steelers Opponent Preview: the Denver Broncos
Another Sunday, another ferocious defense. I hope Capt. Villanueva, The Big Ragu, Dr. Wallace, David DeCatastrophe, and Marcus Gilbert (pronounced “Jeel-ber”) have been eating their Wheaties or whatever their breakfast of champions may be, because there are some nasty pass-rushers on the Broncos.
But before I get into too many more details, there’s something we all need to see, in honor of both the game and the holiday season, from St. Myron of Cope:
If that doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart, you’d better order in a new supply of cockles, folks.
And since we started with an important piece of history, let’s look at a bit more.
The Steelers have now played the Broncos 22 times, and I’m sorry to say the record is not very good—7 wins, 14 losses, 1 tie. You might be hoping the losses were a long time ago, but a quick rattling of the mental furniture will probably turn up the information that the Steelers have not played the Broncos particularly well in recent years. During the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers have just one win in four matches.
However, there is a mitigating factor or two. The first—and it is a big one—is that all four games were in Denver. In the first of the four Steelers safety Ryan Clark almost died, due to a combination of the altitude in Invesco Field and the sickle-cell blood trait he carries. He didn’t leave his heart in San Francisco, as far as I know, but he did leave both his spleen and gall bladder in Denver.
Therefore, he was unable to play in the three subsequent games.
The third of the four was the infamous Tebowing in the 2011 playoffs. I was watching that game from an apartment lobby in France, as my husband was on sabbatical. The game began about 11 p.m. French time, and by half-time, as a battered Ben Roethlisberger unsuccessfully attempted to elude the relentless pass rush and as one defensive player after another had to leave the game, I turned it off and went to bed.
The final game of the series was Peyton Manning’s triumphant return to the NFL after being cut by the Colts and signing with Denver.
There is good reason to believe this season’s contest will be rather different. First of all, while Peyton Manning is still theoretically the starting quarterback for this season, the actual starter (and probably, strangely, the better quarterback) is back-up Brock Osweiler. He’s not setting any records or setting the league on fire yet, but he’s doing just enough offensively to outscore his opposition.
Of course, this is because his opposition is hamstringed by the Denver defense, who is No. 1 in the league in lots of categories
It is interesting to compare them to the other two really good defenses the Steelers have played thus far—Seattle and Cincinnati. And for that matter to compare them to Pittsburgh’s defense. Here are the figures:
It looks as if Denver is indeed better in most categories than the other good defenses we’ve played. Overall, I would say they have less areas of weakness than any of the others.
On the offensive side of the ball they have two pretty good backs, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Anderson did not practice Wednesday but has not been ruled out. Gary Kubiak, as of Thursday, expects him to play on Sunday, and he was a limited participant at Thursday’s practice.
Particularly with Osweiler running the offense the Broncos want to run the ball, so stopping them is going to be even more critical than usual.
Statistically DeAngelo Williams is better than either. In yards per attempt he is № 9, right behind Le’Veon Bell. (Note to ESPN—it would sure be handy if you would allow a function to filter for guys who are on IR. At least two of the top nine are out for the season, perhaps more, since I don’t keep up with such things. (The other one I know about is Thomas Rawls, who is at № 1.) In rushing touchdowns Williams is № 3, with eight, which is even better when you realize how many games he essentially had no touches in. Hillman is tied for № 9, with six, Anderson tied for № 41 with three.
Between the two of them they have about 1200 rushing yards, or about 100 less than Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams combined.
As far as receivers go, Denver’s best are Demarius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Pro Football Focus ranks them 36th and 22nd respectively. They have two good tight ends, Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis. The receivers (including tight ends) have combined for 12 touchdowns. Our old friend Emmanuel Sanders has a third of them.
Pittsburgh is № 2 in the league in scoring, averaging 26.5 points per game. (Which is pretty amazing when you realize that a third of those games were played without Ben.) Denver is № 24, with 21.6 points averaged. In their last five games they have averaged 17.8 points per game, and if you remove the one anomaly, (the win over the Patriots, in which they scored three rushing touchdowns) the average is less than 15 points per game. If you take out the defensive score the average is just over 13 points per game.
And of course at quarterback is the young Brock Osweiler. He’s not bad. But he’s probably not a match for Keith Butler’s tricky blitzes, and if his receivers drop the passes which do come their way, as they did last week, it isn’t likely they will score a lot more than the 15 points they put up last week.
The interesting question is whether he is better than Peyton Manning is at this point. Manning actually ran the scout team this week, simulating Ben Roethlisberger. That is ironic on so many levels. One remembers James Harrison’s remark about Ben “thinking he is Peyton Manning out there.” The tape will tell you that the Ben Roethlisberger of 2015 is a much, much better quarterback than the Peyton Manning of 2015, however storied Manning’s career has been. At least unless some sort of miracle has occurred as Mannings’ foot healed.
There is no way the Manning we saw at the end of last season and earlier in this one can simulate Roethlisberger’s beautiful deep passes. However, we may not see a lot of those on Sunday. With as fierce and opportunistic a defense as Denver has, I’m guessing the Steelers will play it pretty safe.
The injury report features some interesting names. Unfortunately DeMarcus Ware practiced fully Wednesday and Thursday, and really unfortunately, Von Miller is not on the report at all.
Some of the less-known names are the defensive backs, which have been a revolving door of injuries lately. The offensive line is oft-injured as well, with both tackles being back-ups after the starters went out for the season. The center is also a replacement, and one of the guards did not practice on Wednesday but was a limited participant on Thursday. Two safeties, Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward, did not practice either day. There were six guys on the DNP list but two were not injury related.
For the Steelers, Bud Dupree was limited on Thursday, with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth both practicing fully. However, Mike Mitchell again did not participate, and Ryan Shazier was out on Thursday as well. DeAngelo Williams was sick, and Will Allen was just out. Looking at the lists, the Steelers are again apparently healthier than the opponent.
This game will be an interesting test for both teams. Let us hope it is both interesting and gratifying for the Steelers.