Steelers Opponent Preview: the Denver Broncos, Part Two
The last time the Steelers played the Broncos seems like a very long time ago, but it has actually only been about a month. Despite the fact the Broncos were playing with their back-up quarterback, Brock Osweiler, at Heinz Field, many had this down on their calendars as a Steelers loss. The main reason for this was the more-than-adequate offense coupled with a ferocious defense.
The rematch is, of course, in Denver. It features a Broncos team at close to full strength, Peyton Manning back under center, and a whole lot of question marks on the Steelers’ side. As Mark Kaboly of the Tribune-Review tweeted:
Think about what we could see Sunday: Cody Wallace snapping to Landry Jones who hands to Fitz Toussaint who runs behind Alejandro Villanueva.
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) January 14, 2016
I’m guessing that if any of us had known this on September 8th, the day after Fitzgerald Toussaint was signed to the Steelers’ practice squad, we would have been completely shocked to discover it was a second playoff game in which this scenario might take place. And it doesn’t look very good when you lay it out that way.
So despite the come-from-behind win over the Broncos in December it is hardly surprising Denver is favored by a touchdown. In fact, the surprising thing is that they aren’t favored by more. Yet. Should it become evident that Antonio Brown can’t play, I’m guessing that will go up. [UPDATE: Antonio Brown has been ruled out.]. And if it looks as if Ben Roethlisberger can’t play, I’m guessing you will hardly be able to find anyone who is taking the Steelers.
Which is just how our guys like it. They like to be the underdogs—to be overlooked. So there’s that. But I haven’t got a lot of good news otherwise.
In my previous opponent preview I included a chart comparing the three best defenses the Steelers played this season, and added in the Steelers D. Here it the updated version, as of the end of the season:
Denver shows up as the №1 defense if you look at the regular season stats list, but that is because the default sort is Yards/Game. A much more telling measure is Points/Game, and Denver moves to № 4 in that stat. However, the statistic which concerns me the most is sacks, and they lead the league with 52. Whoever is at quarterback for the Steelers, giving up a lot of sacks is not going to be a recipe for success.
Unfortunately, they don’t give up a lot of rushing yards either. As you can see, they give up almost 10 yards per game less than Cincinnati. On the other hand, Cincinnati gave up considerably more than their average to the Steelers’ 3rd and 4th string running backs last Saturday. This means, however, that there is a lot more tape on those guys. So I hope Todd Haley is feeling creative. And there has to be at least the illusion that the Steelers can move the ball well via the passing game.
On the offensive side of the ball Denver has two good backs, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Both appear to be healthy. Denver didn’t get where they were going with a fabulous rushing game, though. Their average of 4.2 yards per attempt was № 17, behind the Steelers at 4.4. The average yards per game was almost identical—107.8 for the Steelers, 107.4 for the Broncos. As you look at the statistics the Broncos and the Steelers have very similar stats.
So let’s look at what happens when they played common opponents—and each other. This probably tells us more than the average of the season games.
Both teams played the AFC North, so I’m going to compare those games. Here’s a few of the stats from those games:
These are pretty basic things, but they are still of interest. Several things stood out to me. Probably the biggest was, two of the three Steelers losses were at home. I realize that the first Bengals game was Ben’s first for a month or so, but as I think about it Heinz Field hasn’t been as much of a haven for this team as usual. Which is just as well under the circumstances.
And curiously, Mike Prisuta dug up a little nugget about the Broncos’ many sacks, and they actually had slightly more of them on the road than they did at home.
Let’s look at several factors that will be more or less important in the game.
There is no doubt a team coming into a high altitude situation is at a disadvantage, particularly when it is cold. When you’re accustomed to a certain level of oxygen in the air you breathe, it makes it harder to exert yourself until you grow accustomed to the difference. Which takes a while. Quite a while, really, as your body has to produce more red blood cells and more capillaries to deal with the lower concentration of oxygen in the air you breathe.
Many years ago, when we lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico (which is about 2000 feet higher than Denver,) I hired a well-known English countertenor to sing a couple of concerts with my chamber music group. He asked when the rehearsals were, as he planned to show up a few day beforehand. I suggested he come a week ahead, because of the altitude, and although he thought that was strange, he did so.
The morning after the night he flew in happened to be Easter, and my husband and I, being church musicians, had four services to cover beginning at 6 am, so we left him to sleep. After finishing the last service at around 12:30 we went home, and when we walked in he came rushing over and said “What’s wrong with me? I feel like my head is in a blanket! I can’t breathe! I can’t sing!”
Perhaps he, like Antonio Brown, should have received a Grammy for the performance. But he was genuinely freaked out. We carefully explained what was happening, that he would feel better eventually, and not to panic. Over the next few days he did, indeed, find that he could breathe, and sing, but it wasn’t easy. By the concerts he was better, but certainly not 100%. Of course, his 80% or so was better than 100% of almost anyone else. But it is a real adjustment. This is why part of the Olympic team came to train for several months at my high school prior to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
So should Mike Tomlin have told the plane to head for Denver immediately after the Cincinnati game? We’ll never know, but I think the players are probably better off where they can get their usual medical attention, work as they usually do, and just be prepared to use the sideline oxygen frequently, whether they think they need it or not. You can’t really adjust in a week. Far better to be in as good a shape as possible.
So to return to Mike Prisuta’s sack info, it makes me wonder if the guys who have been training and playing at 5200 feet are at somewhat of an advantage when they play at sea level. Someday perhaps I’ll look and see whether their home/road splits over the years shows something like this. Of course, at home they get to play unacclimated guys, so it’s probably a wash.
The Running Game
While the Broncos beat the Ravens, they had a lot of trouble running against them. They had the most success running against the Bengals, in a game in which AJ McCarron was getting his second NFL start. That game, for what it’s worth, was also a home game for them. They ran reasonably well against the Steelers.
The Steelers had their worst running game against the Broncos. They weren’t much better against the Austin Davis-led Browns in the last game of the season. But then they somehow, through the magic of adrenaline and desperation, I suppose, had almost their best running game of this set last week against Cincinnati, a top-10 rush defense, with some guys nobody had ever heard of.
The Passing Game
It seems truly bizarre to go into a playoff game with uncertainties about both quarterbacks, but there we are. Manning is certainly playing, at least at first. We don’t really know what that means. He did come in for the final 23 minutes of the Week 17 game against the Chargers. During the 11 or so of those minutes Manning was on the field, (taking out the final minute of kneeling) he attempted nine passes, completing five of them. He didn’t throw any picks, and those five completions went for 69 yards.
I wondered how many of those yards were YAC. Since I couldn’t get that info from the NFL play-by-play I watched that portion of the game. I’m glad I did, because I found out a lot of other things besides this. But let’s start with Manning’s arm.
The longest pass he threw was an incompletion that could have been a pick, as it hit the helmet of a defensive player. It traveled maybe 35 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, pretty much down the middle, so adding the dropback it probably went 45 yards. Manning took a big hit as he threw.
The next longest of the nine attempts was also incomplete—it went towards the right sideline, overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders, about 19 yards plus the dropback.
The longest completion was about 18 yards plus the dropback. There was also a completion of 16 yards (we can infer the dropback from now on,) ten yards, six yards, and his first pass was maybe four yards, with ten YAC. The arm is not impressive. But the really interesting thing was there were so few yards gained after the catch.
This was against a decimated San Diego defense. Part of the problem was they had a lot of trouble stopping the run. They would drop someone for little or no gain and then give up a 15-yard run on the next play. (This was, of course, in the latter half of the game, when you would expect them to be tiring.)
Manning was put in because Brock Osweiler had thrown two picks and lost a fumble. Emmanuel Sanders and C.J. Anderson also fumbled. San Diego’s defense ended the season at № 28 according to Football Outsiders. Frankly, what I saw gives me a tiny ray of hope…
The other thing the announcers were wittering on about were the offensive lines. Of course, we’ve seen San Diego come to Pittsburgh with an offensive line picked up off the street, and look like the second coming of the Mike Munchak-era Houston Oilers. But the facts are, the offensive line was at one point not playing a single starter, players were having to change positions during the game, and yet Denver’s vaunted defense only had three sacks. Rivers didn’t throw an interception until late in the fourth quarter.
They had plenty to say about the problems with the Denver offensive line as well. They only gave up two sacks, however, so perhaps we can’t count on much help there. One of them was a coverage sack on Manning.
If Manning proves ineffective, the backup is presumably Osweiler, but he didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday with a knee injury. The Broncos have signed someone or other as a backup to him, and Gary Kubiak announced that they will dress three quarterbacks. It could make life interesting for them if Manning is turning the ball over and Osweiler is iffy.
On the Steelers’ side, there is no telling what is going to happen. Even the decision of which quarterbacks to dress is apparently going to be made as late as possible before the game on Sunday. So what combination of Ben, Landry, and Michael Vick we see is a complete mystery.
This also goes for Antonio Brown, who hasn’t practiced yet. Sammie Coates has been getting practice time and according to one of the beat writers looks considerably better than he did a few months ago. One would hope so. It looks as if Peyton is going to have the full panoply of receivers available to him. Great… (Although Demarius Thomas dropped a catchable pass in Week 17, something he has done a lot this season, and we can hope he continues to do on Sunday.)
The Steelers, with the exception of the first Ravens game, have not lost a game in which they had a positive turnover/takeaway margin. But they also had Josh Scobee at kicker to even things up. (I suppose you could consider a missed field goal a turnover of sorts, and that would make the margin even at 0, and not spoil the narrative.)
Conversely, the Steelers have not won a game in which they had a negative margin. I throw this information out there as a matter of interest, but I’m guessing that if the Steelers are ahead in the TA/TO column they’ll be doing pretty well.
If Ben Roethlisberger plays, we have no idea what we’ll be getting. Will he be sacked multiple times? Will he try some desperate and low-percentage passes to AB or whoever is next in his Circle of Trust? It’s certainly possible.
And if Landry Jones is playing, he is well known for turning the ball over, including in last week’s game-losing pick, at least until the Bengals helped out. He is capable of playing turnover-free ball—he did so when he had to come into the game vs. the Cardinals and threw two touchdowns and no interceptions. But this seems to be the exception.
In the meantime, Peyton Manning was a turnover machine before he was finally pulled for Brock Osweiler. This is, of course, an anomaly in a career in which his regular season numbers, exempting this season, are 530 touchdowns to 234 interceptions.
This season he had nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The only other season in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns was his rookie year, in which he threw 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. I was sort of hoping 2014 was looking like the beginning of the end, but in terms of the TD/INT ratio it doesn’t—it was 39 to 15.
In the postseason he has 38 touchdowns to 24 interceptions. This is certainly respectable, and is probably explained by the increase in quality of the teams he played.
One other factor—Denver’s defense has scored four touchdowns this season. They are tied for first place with four other teams, all of which are in the playoffs except for the Colts. The Steelers have two.
This game may well boil down to which team is better at rattling whoever the quarterback may be. I suppose you could say this every week, though.
The injury reports this week for the Broncos have featured a number of guys who were out with illness. Reminds me of the Steelers in the week before the second Ravens game. Illness-induced weakness and lethargy may be one of our only hopes on Sunday, as they are otherwise largely healthy, with the above-mentioned exception of Osweiler. That could, of course, be huge, although in many ways I’d rather see a still-gimpy Osweiler than some unknown who would perhaps go on to put up 30 points on the Steelers defense. The Steelers’ D has not done well against unknowns and journeymen for the most part this season.
The post-season, as we know, is a whole different animal. That said, I am casting my lot with those who have said the Bengals win was enough. Not that I wouldn’t love to see a Steelers win this week, of course—I just think it’s not reasonable to expect one.
These Steelers keep surprising us and turning out winning (if not necessarily quality) performances with duct tape, hairpins, and—well, I started to say ‘spit,’ but given last Saturday perhaps I’ll say ‘glue’ instead. The holes are getting larger, the patch jobs more evident, and there is only so much you can expect from heart and grit.
Nonetheless, Here We Go, Steelers!