After a franchise record tying three straight playoff losses, the Pittsburgh Steelers advanced into the divisional round last weekend by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers’ pulse pounding, improbable come from behind win over the Bengals was everything you expect and fear from a post season game. Low scoring, injuries, turnovers, and penalties galore gave Steelers’ Nation reason to go into cardiac arrest on more than one occasion.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the field late in the contest after a sack by Vontaze Burfict forced him off the field with what would later be diagnosed as a shoulder separation and multiple torn ligaments. Backup Landry Jones would be called upon to put the Steelers in scoring range, but failed to do so when he threw an interception to Burfict. This all but ended Pittsburgh’s chances and looked as if the Steelers would be sent home early in a second straight wildcard loss.
The Steelers’ defense, who held Cincinnati scoreless in the first half of regulation, breathed life back into the team’s playoff hopes when Ryan Shazier stripped the football from Bengal’s running back Jeremy Hill. Knowing he was the only hope the Steelers had under center, Roethlisberger returned to the field to attempt one of his signature fourth quarter comebacks.
With the help of a dysfunctional Bengal’s defense, and an illegal hit on wide receiver Antonio Brown by Burfict, the Steelers were given enough yardage to place kicker Chris Boswell in range to put the game winning field goal through the uprights. Pittsburgh had their first playoff victory in five years, but it came with a heavy price.
After nearly a week of speculation it was finally announced on Friday that Brown failed to clear the NFL’s concussion protocol and would not be eligible to play against the Denver Broncos this weekend. DeAngelo Williams is also listed as inactive due to a foot injury suffered in week seventeen against the Cleveland Browns. Roethlisberger, the only one of the three with promising injury news, is listed as questionable for the Steelers’ game on Sunday.
Martavis Bryant vs. Chris Harris, Jr.
Don’t let the fact that Chris Harris, Jr. intercepted only two passes in 2015 fool you: He is one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league not named Josh Norman or Patrick Peterson. After Antonio Brown put on a receiving clinic that tallied sixteen receptions, 189 yards, and two touchdowns, it is almost certain that Harris hoped the Steelers’ number one receiver would clear concussion protocol for a rematch after being embarrassed in week fifteen.
Instead he will be asked to contain Roethlisberger’s new number one target: Martavis Bryant. The first noticeable difference between the two is Bryant’s height advantage. Harris’ 5’10” frame compared to Bryant’s 6’4″ gives him the upper hand, but Harris has a penchant for playing big and breaking up passes. His twenty-four defended passes in the past two years are a testament to that fact.
Depending on the limitations of Roethlisberger’s arm strength it will be interesting to see if he has the ability to take shots down field and go for the deep ball. In all likelihood, the Steelers’ offense will rely more on Bryant’s speed than Roethlisberger’s ability to pass. If Big Ben can give his receiver enough time to get open, without risking a big hit, Bryant can turn what looks like a five yard dump-off pass into much more.
The Broncos’ defense know very well who will be Roethlisberger’s go-to target with Brown out of the picture and will stop at nothing to stymie the Steelers’ attempt to make to yardage necessary to get into scoring range.
The Steelers’ pass rush vs. Peyton Manning
The Steelers’ front seven more or less had their way with A.J. McCarron last weekend, but will find Peyton Manning much more difficult to contend with this time around. The Steelers’ secondary will have their hands full with the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and, if Peyton is given enough time, can be taken advantage of early and often. Pittsburgh’s pass rush must be on point if they hope to have any chance of advancing to the AFC championship game.
Rattling Manning early is the key to the stopping the Broncos’ offense. The front seven must find ways to flush Manning out of the pocket and force him to make uncomfortable throws that can result in interceptions. He is by no means mobile, and the Steelers’ speedy linebackers have the ability to make their way to the quarterback before he has a chance to find Sanders or Thomas.
If the Broncos fail to cover Cameron Heyward or Bud Dupree, who quietly had an impressive game against the Bengal’s offensive line last week, they will make Manning’s time on the field a living nightmare.
Ben Roethlisberger vs. The injured shoulder
Until Roethlisberger makes his first pass of the game against Denver’s defense we will not have a full extent of how limited he is or is not. Big Ben will play through the pain, as he always does, but his offensive line must protect him at all costs. The Steelers’ post season could come crashing to a halt with a single DeMarcus Ware sack that would send Roethlisberger to the sidelines and Landry Jones under center….and, as demonstrated against the Bengals, will not get the Steelers’ offense anywhere.
The medical staff could inject him with a cortisone shot before the game to reduce any pain or swelling still being experienced, but it will not completely solve all of his problems. If he cannot put enough strength into his throws to make long passes he must not attempt them altogether, or risk being picked off by the Broncos’ talented secondary.
Big Ben must know his limitations, play smart, and utilize his receivers in order to effectively move the ball through the air.
The Steelers face an uphill battle against the league’s number one ranked defense and one of the greatest quarterbacks under center across from them on Sunday evening. They are expected to lose, but that is nothing new when it comes to the Steelers. They have struggled through adversity all season and have made it farther than many have expected them to. With injuries on both sides of the ball and playing in a hostile environment, they must come together as a unit and play the best game of their season up to this point.
Pittsburgh advances to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 2010: