The Broncos (4-6) see a possible path _ a narrow one to be sure _ to climb back into playoff contention. But with six games left, they have to maintain a winning track, starting with Sunday’s imposing matchup against the Steelers (7-2-1). The Broncos showed a glimpse of the winning formula that was a hallmark of their Super Bowl winning campaign back in 2015 _ a formidable defense coupled with an offense scoring just enough to win. That was the case in their 23-22 win over the Los Angeles Chargers last week. Brandon McManus converted a last-second field goal and the defense also featured key turnovers and exerted tremendous pressure on the quarterback. In Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb, the Broncos have the most prolific sacking tandem in the league. Miller has 10 sacks and Chubb leads all rookies with nine. The Steelers, however, are one of the best teams in the league at protecting the quarterback, allowing just 14 sacks, the third fewest in the league. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also remains one of the best at shaking off pressure, standing in the pocket and delivering an accurate throw. Getting pressure on the quarterback will be central to any upset hopes for the Broncos, who can’t afford to get ahead of themselves because they’re going to need a chain of success to keep their hopes alieve. There has been a couple of times this season where either Miller or Chubb has been slowed but there has not been a game yet where both have been taken out of the game at the same time by a protection scheme. If one or both can replicate the kind of pressure they showed against the Chargers, Roethlisberger could be in for a long day.
The Broncos lead the all-time regular season series with Pittsburgh 14-8-1, including 8-3-1 when the teams play in Denver. Pittsburgh came out in top in the most recent meeting between the teams, 34-27, at Heinz Field on Dec. 20, 2015.
STRATEGY & PERSONNEL
Notes & Quotes
--The Broncos have signed free agent tackle Cyrus Kouandjio to bolster their offensive line depth. In a corresponding move, left guard Max Garcia was placed on season ending injured reserve with a torn ACL suffered in practice last week. Billy Turner is starting in Garcia’s place. Garcia is the third offensive lineman the Broncos have lost this year to a season-ending injury. Center Matt Paradis went down with a broken leg and guard Ron Leary suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury. Kouandjio is a fifth-year player who has appeared in 28 games for Buffalo and Denver. He played in three games for the Broncos last season.
--Cornerback Brenden Langley was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, filling the vacancy left by the waiver of veteran Adam Jones. A 14-year veteran, Jones joined the Broncos in the offseason as a free agent. He appeared in seven games and had an interception.
--Linebacker Brandon Marshall missed practice time this week because of a bone bruise in his knee and his status for Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh remains uncertain. Marshall has missed the past two games. Rookie Josey Jewell has seen the bulk of the snaps at inside linebacker in Marshall’s absence.
--Cornerback Bradley Roby missed practice time this week and remains in concussion protocol. His availability for Sunday’s Steelers game could be a game-time decision.
--Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton (knee) practiced in limited fashion this week. His status for Sunday’s game remains questionable.
--Running back Phillip Lindsay ranks second among NFL rookies in yards rushing (670). He also has the third most rushing yards in a season by an undrafted rookie in Broncos history.
--Linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb need at least a half sack each against Pittsburgh on Sunday to become the first NFL teammates with simultaneous six-game sack streaks.
BY THE NUMBERS
Rookie wide receiver Courtland Sutton is averaging 20 yards per catch on his 23 receptions this season. That’s the highest average per catch among all NFL players. Sutton moved into the starting lineup after the Broncos traded away Demaryius Thomas. Sutton has extended the ability of the Broncos offense to stretch the field as one of the team’s deep threats, along with Emmanuel Sanders. Sutton also has shown an ability to take advantage of a vulnerability in zone coverages as well as running medium and deep route with speed and precision.
Broncos place-kicker Brandon McManus came through at crunch time last week after missing the potential game-winning kick the week before in a loss to the Houston Texans. McManus, who has been one of the Broncos’ most accurate kickers in the team’s history, delivered a 34-yard game-winning field goal in the victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on his second kick. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn “iced” him by calling timeout just before he kicked his first attempt , which also sailed through the upright but was waved off by the officials. McManus said later that having the first kick waved off actually helped him because he was able to treat it as a practice kick and he drew confidence from getting the first kick through. McManus has now had five career game-tying or game winning field goals the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, including last week’s decisive kick at the end of regulation.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
WR Antonio Brown vs CB Chris Harris Jr.: The Pittsburgh wideout remains the go-to receiver for Roethlisberger and a big-play threat who will draw the attention of the Broncos’ top defensive back, Chris Harris Jr. Harris’ play has really come on in recent weeks and he helped turn the tide in last week’s win over the Chargers with an interception and a series of tackles in run support and immediately after pass completions.
LT Alejandro Villanueva vs LB Bradley Chubb: Villanueva stands out as one of the league’s pass protectors and he’ll need to bring all his athleticism and pass-blocking acumen to bear to slow down Chubb. The fast-rising Chubb has been making strides each week to join Von Miller as a dominating edge rusher. Opposing linemen have had difficulty containing him because of his explosive get-off, strong hands and strong bull rush.
The Broncos need to get their passing game in gear sooner than they did last week, when they gained the bulk of their yardage through the air in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Case Keenum, indeed, was at his best late in the San Diego game but a more consistent performance would give the Broncos some breathing room in hopes of avoiding another nail-biter. Setting up more manageable third-downs also figures to be a key to generating more offensive consistency.
On defense, pressure, pressure, pressure stands out as the key to disrupting Roesthlisberger, perhaps the toughest quarterback in the game to take down in the backfield. He’s just so big and strong and has shown time and again that he can withstand a pass rusher’s initial jolt. Taking Roethlisberger by storm, or getting one pass rusher after another in his face and on his body will tell the tale of Sunday’s football game and whether the Broncos can find a way to come out on top.