As the Steelers’ elite offense and Broncos’ #1 defense trade blows, Pittsburgh’s defense will need to keep their momentum rolling in order to thwart Denver and move up on the AFC food chain.
Last week in Cincinnati, the Steelers defense had another disruptive outing, posting three total interceptions, three sacks and a touchdown in the 33-20 victory over the Bengals. Plays were made from a bevy of contributors – some new, some old, and some that have been a long time coming.
Stephon Tuitt’s early interception of Andy Dalton kicked things off. Thanks to great field awareness and speedy reaction time, Tuitt snagged the screen pass, stopping the Bengals drive just yards away from the end zone. In his attempt to tackle Tuitt, Dalton suffered a thumb injury and was forced to leave the game. This injury went on to provide Pittsburgh with two gimme takeaways.
AJ McCarron stepped in for the Red Rifle, and his inexperience showed right out of the gate. Following the start of the second half, McCarron tossed a screen right into the path of William Gay, who sauntered into the end zone with a patented pick-six. In the fourth quarter, Robert Golden notched his first-career INT after telegraphing another poor McCarron throw.
These plays piggy-backed on top of a pass rush that was steady all afternoon. Per Pro Football Reference, Will Allen and Cam Heyward recorded a sack each. Daniel McCullers and Vince Williams split one.
A similar performance this Sunday against the Broncos will be needed for Pittsburgh. As surgical as Ben Roethlisberger was a week ago, he finished the day with no touchdowns and a late interception. The Bengals successfully shut down the Steelers’ beloved deep ball, and the Broncos are even more capable of doing the same.
Ranked #1 in total defense, Denver has been unforgiving to opposing offenses. They haven’t given up more than 262 passing yards in any game all season. Their 44 total sacks lead the NFL. They cede, on average, a mere 17 points per contest. They’ve forced 19 fumbles and 11 interceptions through fourteen games.
This historic Broncos defense hasn’t allowed more than 29 points to an opponent – and this doesn’t take into account offensive points surrendered, such as pick-sixes or fumble return touchdowns. Don’t forget just how much Peyton Manning was force-feeding defenders turnovers earlier in the year.
In layman’s terms, the Broncos defense is carrying the team.
The Steelers certainly have the personnel to give the Broncos defense their toughest matchup yet. Still, expectations for a sixth-straight 30+ point outing ought to be tampered.
Brock Osweiler has had an up-and-down tenure as starter in place of Manning. His Broncos have gone 3-2 in that span; a Sunday night win over the Patriots still serves as his crowning moment. Lately, though, Osweiler has been under heavy siege, and neither he nor his coaches have responded particularly well.
If you were stuck in a construction zone last Sunday evening, here’s a refresher: Khalil Mack of the Raiders tallied 5 sacks (yes, by himself) in Oakland’s 15-12 win in Denver. Mack stormed to the QB with ease, stealing right tackle Michael Schofield‘s lunch money on every encounter. Denver’s offensive line is banged up as a whole, but their right side is especially vulnerable.
In his five starts, Osweiler has absorbed 17 sacks.
As a result, Osweiler is very paranoid in the pocket. He holds onto the ball for too long and fails to navigate much thanks to his linemen getting schooled. Over the last three games, Osweiler has thrown for 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and 704 yards. Rather pedestrian.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the Denver offense will be a ghost. If Antwon Blake is lined up against Demaryius Thomas – which is totally likely due to Mike Tomlin’s stubbornness – another 66-yard burner is eminent. Emmanuel Sanders is chomping at the bit to prove his old Steelers wrong for letting him walk too. The Broncos have scoring threats from every angle.
This is why the Pittsburgh pass rush will be the game-changer Sunday afternoon. The Steelers need to attack Osweiler until he waves a white flag. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler should have plenty of blitzes dialed up, ones that Osweiler likely has never prepared for. These will be key in forcing hurried throws and making long third-down situations.
The power of Heyward and Tuitt. The space-eating abilities of Steve McLendon. The speed of Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier. The veteran saavy of Arthur Moats and Lawrence Timmons. Pittsburgh has all the tools needed to make Osweiler’s day miserable, and take some pressure off Big Ben and the offense. Don’t forget about James Harrison, either – his low pad level and incredible strength spell doom for the clumsy, 6’6″ Schofield.
Having the roar of Heinz Field in the background is just more incentive for a rising Steelers defense to make a statement on Sunday.
Stats used from NFL.com unless otherwise noted.