As the Broncos get ready for their playoff opener against the Steelers, I figured it was time to revisit what actually happened the last time these two teams met in the regular season and what to really look for this weekend — depending on who takes the field, of course.
There’s going to be a lot of narratives that will surface, but if one goes back to look at the last meeting between the teams, it will tell you more than what the narrative really says. There are some obvious differences, such as Peyton Manning starting at quarterback for the Broncos and Ben Roethlisberger dealing with a shoulder injury, but I want to examine claims some might make and find out if they really had any bearing the last time the teams met.
Going over these, one by one:
Claim: The Broncos will have to throw the football often because the Steelers are so good against the run.
Reality: The Broncos actually did a respectable job running the football against the Steelers. The problems were twofold: They fumbled early and they stopped running the football in the fourth quarter when the Steelers had tied the game.
On the second play of the game, Ronnie Hillman ripped out a nine-yard run and the downside was he fumbled the ball and Steelers safety Mike Mitchell recovered it. For the game, the Broncos ran the ball 25 times for 104 yards and one touchdown. The breakdown of actual attempts by running backs (in other words, not including rush attempts by Brock Osweiler or times he was sacked):
First quarter: Five rushes, 20 yards.
Second quarter: Seven rushes, 39 yards.
Third quarter: Six rushes, eight yards.
Fourth quarter: Two rushes, -4 yards.
The touchdown was a seven-yard run by Osweiler, but the larger point is that, yes, the Steelers are a team that you can run the ball against. The Steelers do get their share of runs held for no gain or negative yardage, but it’s not like they are guaranteed to wipe out a team’s ability to move the football.
It can be argued that the Broncos should have tried running the football a little more in the third quarter, and by the time the fourth quarter came along, they were trying to hurry up and score, so they threw more often. But it’s not like the Broncos have to come out slinging the ball right away. They can run the ball to start; they just have to protect the football.
Claim: The Steelers could really use DeAngelo Williams in this game.
Reality: First of all, the Steelers got enough production out of Fitzgerald Toussiant and Jordan Todman, who combined to rush for 167 yards on 29 carries. That translates to 5.75 yards per carry, though I can imagine that will lead to a related narrative: The Steelers have solved their running back problem and will be able to run the ball repeatedly against the Broncos.
Except the Steelers had trouble running the football against the Broncos the last time the two teams met, and this was when everybody declared DeAngelo Williams had solved the problem the Steelers had at running back after Le’Veon Bell was lost for the season to an ACL injury. Against the Broncos, though, Williams rushed for a mere 26 yards on 14 carries. While it is true the Broncos have to execute in run defense, there’s no evidence from the regular-season contest that the Steelers can run the ball at will against the Broncos, just because they did that against the Bengals.
Claim: If Antonio Brown was cleared to play, the Broncos would be in trouble.
Reality: Credit must be given where it is due to Brown, who has tallied at least 100 yards receiving in the majority of the games he’s played when Ben Roethlisberger was under center. When Roethlisberger missed weeks four through seven, Brown’s only 100-yard receiving game came against the Chiefs in Week 7, a 23-13 loss. In the other 13 games in which Roethlisberger started, including last week’s playoff game, Brown had at least 100 yards receiving in nine of them.
Who were the teams the Steelers faced, with Roethlisberger starting and Brown held to less than 100 yards receiving. They would be the two regular-season outings against the Bengals (47 in the first outing, a 16-10 loss, and 87 yards in the second, a 33-20 win), the Seahawks (51 yards in a 39-30 loss) and the Ravens (61 yards in a 20-17 loss).
In other words, it is possible to contain Antonio Brown, as the Bengals arguably did during the regular season, as did the Seahawks. (The Ravens game would be the one in which the Steelers failed to execute all around.) We know the Seahawks have an overall good secondary, and the Bengals have a good secondary when healthy. In the playoffs, they lost Reggie Nelson to injury, and I think one can fairly argue that when Nelson went out, the Steelers would ultimately take advantage of his absence.
That brings us back to the other part of this equation: When the Broncos and Steelers last met, not only was Brown playing well, Chris Harris was playing poorly and Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby weren’t much better. As we know, it was Harris’ worst game of the season. And while I would expect Brown, if he plays, to get his share of production, I wouldn’t expect Harris to have a repeat performance of his regular-season outing. Additionally, the return of T.J. Ward to the lineup, and hopefully a healthy Darian Stewart, should give the Broncos plenty of help in limiting Brown’s opportunities.
Claim: Because Peyton Manning is back in the lineup, the Steelers will force multiple turnovers just like the Chiefs did.
Reality: First of all, the Chiefs have a better pass defense than the Steelers. Second, while there are reasons to be skeptical of what Peyton will do, that ignores what really made his multiple turnovers against the Chiefs in Week 9 so dreadful: They gave the Chiefs great field position each time.
None of that is to say that Peyton can afford to turn the ball over in the red zone (he certainly cannot) but what really caused that Chiefs game to get out of hand was the Chiefs kept starting drives in Denver territory. The drives the Chiefs started after turnovers were on the Denver 31 (touchdown), the 50-yard line (field goal), the Denver 24 (field goal) and the Kansas City 49 (punt). I will add that Denver’s special teams didn’t help, either, as Kansas City started its opening drive of the second half on the Denver 49, punted, then held the Broncos to three and out and started their next drive on the Denver 41, getting a field goal in the process.
In other words, what really stung the Broncos as much, if not a little more, than Peyton’s turnovers was giving up great field position to the Chiefs so much. Again, Peyton can’t throw four picks, but the Broncos need to win the battle of field position, too. That’s particularly true with Ben Roethlisberger not going into the game at 100 percent and not in a position to attack downfield. If he gets great field position, he can attempt short passes and at least get either field goal chances for the Steelers or chances to pin the Broncos deep in their own territory.
Claim: Without Ben Roethlisberger at 100 percent, a Broncos win means nothing.
Reality: In the playoffs, you play with the hand you are dealt. Nobody should minimize the Chiefs’ win over the Texans because they faced Brian Hoyer, or minimize the Steelers’ win over the Bengals because Andy Dalton didn’t start. You still have to execute if you want keep moving forward.
And the Broncos do have the best defense in the NFL by just about every measure, they are doing a better job of running the football than they were to start the season, certain players on the offensive line (Matt Paradis, Louis Vasquez, Max Garcia) are playing better and some key players on defense who missed games down the stretch should be back in the lineup.
I do think it will help if Gary Kubiak and company are a little more aggressive with play calling because the training wheels should come off in the postseason, and it will help to not blitz on every down despite Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, because that will only allow him the chance to connect on short passes that could turn into long gains.
But, in the end, if the Broncos do win this game, it will be because they executed in more phases of the game than the Steelers did, meaning they earned the win, and that the Steelers won’t be making any excuses. The regular-season game result can’t be changed, but that result doesn’t mean the outcome of Sunday’s playoff game is already set in stone.