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Know Thy Enemy: Denver Broncos

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The Pittsburgh Steelers try to keep their playoff hopes alive when they host the Denver Broncos this Sunday at Heinz Field. The game itself is a classic case of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object. The irresistible force being the Steelers offense. The Cardinals may technically be ranked first and an argument can certainly be made for the Patriots but I after scoring 30+ points and amassing 350+ yards of offense in five consecutive games, there’s little doubt who has the best offense in football.

Meanwhile, the Broncos come in holding the top ranked defense in the NFL. There’s little debate here as Denver’s defense is so good, they’ve even won two games without scoring an offensive touchdown. The Broncos come in ranked first in fewest total yards, first in fewest points per game, and first against the pass. The only “weakness” is their run defense, which is ranked all the way down at 3rd. Bottom line is these guys are really really good.

What’s impressive about the Broncos is that they truly play team defense. There is no one player you can key on as the talent is spread far and wide. If you had to pick stars, OLB Von Miller (10 sacks) and CB Aqib Talib (3 INTs) are probably the biggest names. They brought in former Cowboy DeMarcus Ware to play opposite Miller but he’s missed the last month with injury (although he could return as soon as this week). Really, though, the heart of the Broncos defense is unsung guys like ILB Brandon Marshall, who leads the team in tackles, or Shaq Barrett, who has 5.5 sacks in place of Ware.

If there’s good news, it’s that the Steelers offense looks to be all systems go. LT Alejandro Villanueva appears fine after missing some time against the Bengals with a suspected concussion. DeAngelo Williams had an undisclosed illness but I fully expect him to be fine by game time. Although obviously the weight of the offense will once again fall on Ben Roethlisberger. Ben didn’t have a particularly good game against Cincy but he was ruthlessly efficient in the process of getting three different guys five or more catches.

Points will be the name of the game as the Broncos turn once again to Brock Osweiler in place of the old broken down Peyton Manning. Peyton has returned to practice so he may have clipboard duty on Sunday but the game will be Brock’s to win or lose. After winning his first three starts, young Osweiler fell back to earth last weekend against the Raiders.

Or, rather, he was thrown there with malicious intent. Repeatedly. Last week the Raiders’ Kalil Mack had five sacks all by his lonesome as the Broncos line was badly exposed. Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler has shown an affinity for the blitz so expect the Steelers to come after him early and often. Under siege last week, the Denver offense self-destructed with numerous drops and mistakes.

It’d certainly help a newbie signal caller to have a strong running game, which Denver hasn’t had in recent weeks. CJ Anderson was thought to be the workhouse back but has struggled most of the year until finally missing time with injury. Ronnie Hillman started in his absence and didn’t much provide anything by way of a ground threat. Whether one or both play Sunday, the Steelers chances are greatly enhanced if they can bottle up Denver’s rushing attack.

Then again, they’ve done an okay job of that all season only to be undone by the secondary. Denver has been winning by throwing the ball as Demaryius Thomas and old friend Emmanuel Sanders form a very good 1-2 punch. Mike Mitchell is nursing a sore shoulder otherwise the secondary is healthy which is slightly worrisome because it means Mike Tomlin will keep running Antwon Blake out there to get burned like a bagel stuck in a toaster. Brandon Boykin doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either but I’ve seen more than my fill of Blake. If the secondary can put together even a mediocre effort, I’ll like the Steelers chances.

If the playoffs were to begin today, the Black and Gold would be on the outside looking in. A loss to Denver wouldn’t eliminate them nor would it make the road to a Wild Card berth significantly harder. Basically, the Steelers need to win 2 of their last 3 with the Ravens and Browns on deck. Then they need the Jets to lose one of their final two against AFC teams (this week they play the Cowboys, where a loss is basically meaningless). As long as NY loses to one AFC team, the Steelers will jump them in the standings by virtue of tiebreaker.

Of course, a loss to Denver means the team has no choice but win out. Not impossible but certainly not a gimme it would appear to be either. For the second week in a row the Steelers face a team looking to score a first round bye in the AFC. For the second week in a row, it’d be nice to play the Grinch a week before Christmas.