Everything you need to know for Steelers-Broncos

Bryson Vesnaver identifies key players, matchups and paths to victory for both Pittsburgh and Denver.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Everything you need to know for Steelers-Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers won an absolutely wild Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night, earning a trip to Denver in the Divisional Round. But it didn’t come without costs. PFF’s No. 1-ranked wide receiver, Antonio Brown, suffered a concussion, and elite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a shoulder injury. Both players’ status for this week is uncertain. (Note: This article will be updated as information becomes known on both players.)

Meanwhile, the Broncos earned the top seed this season by having arguably the best defense in football matched up with an offense that did just enough at times. They get future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning back to start this game, although it remains to be seen if he will show any improvement from his early-season struggles.

Just three weeks ago, the Broncos traveled to Pittsburgh and blew a 27-13 halftime lead, losing 34-27. But that was with Brock Osweiler at QB. Now it’s at Mile High, with Manning running the Broncos offense.

Here are some things to watch out for in this matchup:

Pittsburgh Steelers

The good

The two best things about the Steelers offense might not even play in this game. Roethlisberger (92.8 player grade) was our third-ranked QB this season. The difference in the Steelers’ offense when he played compared to when he didn’t (he has missed four games and parts of others) is astounding. Brown (96.6) was the highest-graded receiver and averaged 2.89 yards per route run, third-most among wideouts.

The Steelers have had a strong pass rush all season, led by OLB James Harrison (85.5) and his 45 total pressures. On the inside, DE Cameron Heyward had 58 total pressures this season, fifth-most at his position. That doesn’t include the sack, hurry, and seven pressures he had in the Wild Card game. Overall in their game against the Bengals, the Steelers pressured AJ McCarron on 43 percent of his dropbacks, and had three sacks.

The bad

This could all be moot point if he plays, but the Steelers’ receiving corps minus Antonio Brown has not been great this season. Their next-best WR is Marcus Wheaton (75.4), and he has only produced average grades this year outside of one big week versus Seattle. Both WR Martavis Bryant (70.8) and TE Heath Miller (73.7) have had up-and-down seasons. Bryant had a positively graded game against Cincinnati, including an acrobatic, highlight-reel touchdown catch, but that was after two well below-average games to finish the regular season.

The Steelers have had a tough time in pass coverage this year. ILBs Ryan Shazier (62.0) and Lawrence Timmons (38.8) have been among worst coverage linebackers in the NFL this year, although Shazier had a +3.8 coverage game against the Bengals, his first above-average coverage grade this entire season. CB Antwon Blake (34.3) set a PFF record by allowing 1,074 yards in coverage, the most we’ve ever recorded. He finished the season ranked 113th out of 117 qualified corners.

Key player

QB Ben Roethlisberger (92.8): This is an easy pick. Roethlisberger has been one of the best QBs in the NFL this season. Nobody has a better accuracy rate on deep throws than his 50.7 percent. The Steelers are 8-4 and average 422 yards of offense when Roethlisberger starts. Without him? 2-2 and 315 yards per game.

Denver Broncos

The good

There wasn’t a whole lot of great on the Broncos’ offense this year, but WRs Emmanuel Sanders (85.8) and Demaryius Thomas (79.1) had good seasons and can continue to get open against most defenses. Both finished the year with 1000+ yards and above-average grades. Both were also top 15 in yards after the catch, Thomas with 492 and Sanders with 364, and both averaged over 2.0 yards per route run (top 12 among receivers).

What isn’t good about the Broncos defense? Since something has to be picked, we’ll go with their run defense. Of the 20 Broncos defenders that have played significant snaps this season, 16 of them graded above average against the run. They were led by elite DT Derek Wolfe (90.1) and elite OLB Von Miller (91.8). Both players are top ten at their position both overall and against the run.

The bad

This was a tie between pass protection and QB Peyton Manning (60.0). Manning was the 33rd-ranked quarterback this season, out of 40 that qualified. His 17 interceptions led the league until the final week, despite him only starting nine games. But the offensive line has not helped either. Of their five starters, only C Matt Paradis (73.4) graded as above a back-up level player. As a unit they’ve allowed 196 pressures this season, 13th most in the NFL.

Their defense however is one of, if not the best defense in the NFL and it does not have a lot of weaknesses. Picking one, it would have to be pass coverage, but only because they are so good against the run and at rushing the passer. CB Aqib Talib (78.1 coverage grade) hasn’t been superb in coverage, and ILB Brandon Marshall (75.5 in coverage) can be taken advantage of in the middle of the field.

Key player

OLB Von Miller (91.8): Miller is the best player on this defense, and the fourth-highest graded edge defender in the NFL this year. His 82 total pressures were tied for the most at his position, and his 14.3 pass rushing productivity ranked fourth. He also made 15 run stops, which was 15th most among edge defenders.

Matchups to watch

WR Antonio Brown (96.6) (if not injured) vs. Chris Harris Jr. (86.6): Three weeks ago, Brown absolutely toasted Harris Jr. to the tune of 12 catches on 13 targets for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Take away that game and Harris Jr. allowed a mere 0.72 yards per cover snap this season, and no touchdowns. Brown was the best receiver in football this season. This matchup could very well decide this game.

LT Ryan Harris (39.1) vs. OLB James Harrison (85.5): This is another matchup that could decide this game, but one that looks much more lopsided. Harris was ranked 62nd out of 81 qualified tackles this season, and has allowed 41 total pressures this season. Harrison ranked 14th among edge defenders, and had a 12.7 pass rush productivity (fifth-best among OLBs).

Paths to Victory

Pittsburgh can win if: Antonio Brown plays and has a similar game against Chris Harris Jr. that allows Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball all over the field, and the Steelers pass rush can get to Peyton Manning and force him to throw interceptions.

Denver can win if: Peyton Manning doesn’t turn the football over and just manages the game, and their defense does what it’s done all season and shuts down the Steelers’ run game and gets some good pressure on Ben Roethlisberger.


| Analyst

Bryson has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, and has also been a contributor to 120 Sports.

  • Booper

    Spot on. I doubt anyone else has noticed the most obvious chink in the Broncos’ defense, ass coverage.

    • Autocephallus

      Having seen the forecast, chilly buttocks might be an issue for them in this game.

    • Izach

      lol I saw that too

    • Madi

      That’s why I come to PFF: the in-depth anal.

  • AJ

    Does Evan Mathis not count as a starter? I noticed when Brock was starting, Mathis would often not be on the field in obvious pass situations (probably due to his nagging injury) but usually be there on run plays.

    When Manning returned in Week 17, Mathis stayed in on just about every snap, possibly due to Manning switching plays on the fly.

    Either way, Mathis is significantly above average overall, especially if he’s healthy.

    • anon76returns

      I was curious about that, too. As of just a few weeks ago Mathis had the highest run blocking grade of any guard, and was in the top 10 guards over all. I don’t think his play could possibly have been that bad recently to change things (if for no other reason then because he hasn’t been on the field), but he hasn’t started since the Oakland game and only played 6 snaps between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. I’m guessing PFF no longer considers him a starter, and that explains the exclusion (though now I’m curious how badly Garcia and Vasquez graded out).

  • crosseyedlemon

    Broncos are the only playoff team to have a negative turnover ratio so that could pose a problem. The Steelers are probably happy that they won’t have to contend with Tebowmania this time around as well.

  • Sam Doohan

    It’s sad that so much of this game will be decided by injuries. If the worst comes to the worst the Steelers will be playing without their starting QB, WR1, RB1 and RB2 and that’s just a recipe for a bad playoff game.

  • Cheyenne Kid

    Injuries are part of the game.Take Peyton, for example. He suffered the foot injury very early in the season and was mum about it until it was Obvious he was hurting the team by playing. They gave him ample time to heal and that gave the team to get a good look at Osweiler.Then he comes back in and directs the 20 points that secured the win over the Bengals that gave them the 1 seed that looked lost two weeks prior.Denver is in great shape injury wise and Pittsburgh is not at this point.If Roethlisberger, Brown and Williams somehow play,I doubt any of the three will be near 100% operable, no matter how Pittsburgh is opostic about them playing. So Go Broncos and get that payback you want and deserve!!!

  • Names Unimportant

    One interesting difference between this game and the last is the Broncos’ safeties. They Broncos’ two starters and their #4 safety were all unavailable in the first matchup, while David Bruton famously played most of the game on a broken leg (now on IR). While T.J. Ward is now healthy and expected to play his usual box safety role, Darian Stewart remains a question mark for the game (hamstring). The difference in coverage that the Broncos show with Stewart in the game is pretty significant—Stewart has been a big positive in the scheme and a major upgrade over departed starter Rahim Moore (benched in Houston, last I heard). If Stewart is healthy and at full speed, the Broncos’ coverage should be greatly improved on deep throws.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      d. stew has been a legit steal, his physicality has really rounded out the back-end.