By Mark Schiff
For a team that’s never been in Denver’s division, it sure does feel like the Broncos and the Steelers have a lot of history. The teams have clashed 23 times in the regular season (with the average score being 22-21, Denver) and as two of the NFL’s elite franchises, they’ve met in the playoffs an additional seven times.
So if history—both recent and ancient—is any indicator, we should be in for a close contest. As the Steelers head to Denver for their sixth divisional round meeting, here’s your look at a strong Pittsburgh team.
Steelers on Offense:
Thanks to the Hall of Fame careers of players like Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers’ identity used to be that of a running team. But entering 2016, Pittsburgh is defined by its elite passing attack. Antonio Brown, a first-team All-Pro and arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver, finished the regular season with a preposterous 136 receptions for 1,834 yards. Martavis Bryant made one of the most ridiculous touchdown catches in postseason history last weekend against the Bengals. And Markus Wheaton is an explosive player that can speed through defenses.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns earlier in the season against the Colts, is an extraordinary conductor of their passing game. Big Ben is one the league’s all-time Iron Men, with any uncanny capacity for escaping sacks or standing in the pocket just long enough to deliver a perfect strike.
However, Roethlisberger’s propensity for making big plays and taking big hits has led to injuries throughout his career, and the veteran quarterback sustained a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder in Saturday’s wild-card win over Cincinnati. Reportedly, it’s likely that he plays against Denver, but Brown’s status is more in doubt after he suffered a concussion on a hit from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict that drew a three-game suspension. Running back Deangelo Williams is also hurt, so the Steelers could be missing some of their key offensive players on Sunday.
Steelers on Defense:
Pittsburgh has also been known historically for their strong defense, but here two things have changed. Although the Steelers finished fifth against the run, giving up just 91.2 yards per game, their pass defense was ranked 30th as they got burned to the tune 271.9 yards per game.
But Pittsburgh remains strong in their pass rush, with their 48 sacks ranking third behind only New England (49) and Denver (52). Pittsburgh’s defense has also been strong in the red zone, giving up a touchdown less than 50 percent of the time.
Players to Watch: WR Martavis Bryant and ILB Lawrence Timmons
Antonio Brown had a massive game in the team’s Week 15 meeting, but if he’s out, the pass game will go through Martavis Bryant, who will likely be lined up against a very fired up Chris Harris. Markus Wheaton also figures to be more involved as the Steelers will likely want to fire off quick, short passes.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has been a stalwart on the Steelers defense since 2007, and he again had a strong season, with his 199 tackles leading the team by a large margin. Timmons also had five sacks and Denver’s pass protection will need to stand up to a system that’s designed to get pressure on quarterbacks in a lot of different ways.
The Steelers have an explosive offense, a solid pass rush and are led by veterans that have experience playing in and winning big games, including the one they got over the Broncos less than a month ago. But it’s hard enough to win with injuries to several key players, much less on the road against a confident, rested and hungry Broncos team. With Peyton Manning back at the helm of Denver’s offense and a defense eager to atone for its worst half of the season, the Broncos should be able to outlast the Steelers and advance to the AFC championship game.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.