After their 18-16 victory in the AFC Wild Card game, the Steelers move on to Denver this Sunday to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. It’s still up in the air as to the availability of Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, who are currently in the NFL’s concussion protocol program and dealing with a shoulder injury (respectively), but being without their stars is nothing new for the Steelers. All season long, they have battled through injuries, while watching the IR list get seemingly longer, and yet they have continued to persevere.
When Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year, Cody Wallace stepped up to fill the void. When Le’Veon Bell went down, the Steelers turned to Super Free Agent DeAngelo Williams. When he got hurt, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman stepped up. But that’s how it goes with these Steelers, it’s next man up for the next challenge. Even if Antonio Brown can’t go on Sunday, the Steelers will still have Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Darius Heyward-Bey to lean on, along with little used but talented rookie, Sammie Coates.
When the Broncos have the Ball:
Having to face Peyton Manning this time around, instead of Brock Osweiler, just might be a blessing for a Steelers defense that has 51 sacks in 17 games. Even though Manning is relatively healthy again, he is far less mobile than Osweiler and doesn’t have nearly the arm strength that he used to have. Getting balls downfield could be an issue for Peyton, even more so if he still can’t fully step into his throws.
The Steelers need to shut down the Broncos running game to make them one dimensional, forcing Manning to beat them with his arm. A few years ago, that would have been an insane proposition to consider, but the Steelers aren’t facing the same Peyton Manning on Sunday either. While Peyton still has the same mind and competitive fire, he doesn’t possess the same arm anymore, and Keith Butler needs to take advantage of that.
Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons are coming off of stellar games where they harassed AJ McCarron quite often. If Manning can’t get the ball to them, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders can’t hurt the Steelers. However, Manning still has a quick release and they should expect Denver to go with a quick passing game. Keith Butler should use Ross Cockrell’s size and match him up with Thomas and jam him off the line, in an effort to mess up Manning’s timing. Butler should do the same with Boykin against Sanders.
When the Steelers have the ball:
If Ben Roethlisberger plays, which is questionable due to torn ligaments and a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, there are going to be limitations to what he can do. With an injury like Ben’s, arm strength isn’t so much of an issue as is his accuracy. If Roethlisberger can’t go, Landry Jones will, and they are going to need him to protect the ball, stay within himself and not try to do too much. Either way, Todman and Toussaint are going to need to have success running the ball, to slow down the pass rush and to help open up the passing game.
Todman showed big play ability and speed against the Bengals, while displaying some nifty jump cuts that froze their defenders stiff. Fitzgerald Toussaint also ran hard and displayed good hands for catching the ball out of the backfield. “TNT” are going to have to step up their game against a much stingier Broncos defense, because those rushing yards are going to much harder to come by.
Without Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant would have to take the reigns of being the go-to guy, which makes it even more important that he show up physically and mentally ready to go, like he did against Cincinnati. When Bryant is on, he can take over a game by himself.
The bottom line:
Even without Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, the Steelers are still capable of winning this game. Although it would be tough sledding, Landry Jones has showed what he is capable of doing when he plays smart football. Against a comparable defense of the Arizona Cardinals, Landry Jones was 8 of 12 for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns. He has the intelligence and the arm to get it done, he would just need to find his rhythm and protect the ball. When he is on, he has been very good, so Haley’s game would need to be centered around what Jones is most comfortable doing.
The Steelers must also hope that by playing a hobbled Manning, they can take advantage of any mistake by Manning to change field position or create points off of turnovers.
Some of the Broncos players are already yapping about how what happened during their last meeting in Pittsburgh, won’t happen again Sunday. While they’re talking, the Steelers are preparing to advance. The Steelers have overcome obstacles all season long, the Broncos are just one more obstacle.