There are a lot of contributing factors that led the Denver Broncos to the top-ranked defense in the NFL during the regular season. They have spectacular defensive backs, versatile linebackers, increasingly dominant interior lineman and of course, the blitz-crazed Wade Phillips leading the unit. But make no mistake, their success starts and ends with pressure. What was deemed a two-man pass-rushing crew last season has recently increased times two for the Broncos and its success or failure Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers will weigh mightily on the outcome.

DeMarcus Ware teamed up with Von Miller in 2014 and they duo jumped out to a great start, but their season ended abruptly just over a year ago when the Indianapolis Colts came to town and beat an uninspired team 24-13. This year Ware and Co. are hoping the emergence of Shaquil Barrett and the addition of Shane Ray, coupled with a new-found determination, can bring down Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. After five consecutive seasons making the playoffs, this team seems no longer content with just an appearance. They want to make some noise and it starts with the edge rushers.

“I just want to take advantage of the opportunity. We’ve made it to the playoffs every single year, but for me, it’s not good enough. I want to go past that. I want to get to where we’re all here for. I want to go in and win the big thing. That’s where my eyes are at. Of course I’m focusing on this week and taking it one play at a time, but that’s the difference between this year and other years,” Miller said emphatically Thursday.

The edge has taken advantage of several teams this season. Ware, Miller, Barrett and Ray compiled 28 of the team’s league-leading 52 sacks on the season. While Ware and Miller were counted on for most of the sacks last season, Barrett and Ray have come up big in many instances this season due to the starters needing rest or due to several games Ware missed due to injuries.

“Its been a really good thing knowing that the guys are really quick learners, really good athletes, but it carries over to the field. Especially when I got hurt or other guys are coming out, you don’t see that lag from the second-team guys,” Ware said Thursday.

Barrett finished with 5.5 sacks and 41 total tackles in the regular season while playing in 45 percent of defensive snaps; Ray finished with four sacks and 20 tackles while participating in 31 percent of defensive snaps. The Broncos praised both in training camp and especially in preseason, where they caused chaos for opposing offensive lines. During the season they were called upon and performed surprisingly well.

“I think the fact that they played a lot through the course of the season should help them. Guys like, Shane [Ray] and those young kids think they know what this next step is all about, playoff football. It is a rude awakening for some of them but it doesn’t take long for them to fit in,” Kubiak said with a grin Thursday. “[Ray] has played some big games for us, he played some big games in college so the good news is, we counted on everybody and we will count on them again this weekend.”

Ware earned his ninth Pro Bowl appearance and Miller, his fourth while also being selected to his third All-Pro team (second first team). Both players rank in the top five in NFL history (since 1982) in sacks per game among players who have appeared in 50 or more contests. They will be leading the charge Sunday and know what the task ahead will take.

“You have to stop the run first to make them pass the ball. We have to make Ben Roethlisberger one-dimensional. They had a good running game, running screens, draws and trick plays last week. You have to be able to be on your technique there, fundamentals,” Ware said Thursday. “Secondly, now what can we do to get pressure on him? When there are quick passes, how can we get the quick pressure and get our hands up?”

The Steelers will likely be playing with Roethlisberger and his injured throwing shoulder. In their physical win over the Cincinnati Bengals last Saturday he tore some ligaments and sprained the joint that holds his shoulder in place. The injury is significant but the Broncos have been preparing for the two-time Super Bowl winner to play. Whether he plays or Landry Jones or Michael Vick get the start, they will likely have a similar short passing game in the works. Ware and Miller both understand that and also know how to play an offense with that game plan in mind.

“Pressure doesn’t always amount to a sack, but [it’s about] how can we stop him and make him make indecisive decisions,” Ware said.

Miller added his take moments earlier Thursday, saying, “I mean, we just have to keep rushing the passer. You can’t just sit and throw short passes the whole game. Whenever opportunity presents itself to rush the passer and do what we do best, we just have to take advantage of it.”

The Steelers are clearly the more injured team in the matchup and the Broncos have benefited greatly from the bye week’s rest. In addition to getting back T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart and Peyton Manning, Ware and others healthy, the Steelers still aren’t sure if one of their crucial offensive weapons, DeAngelo Williams (foot), will be cleared to play. Antonio Brown (concussion) was ruled out early Friday morning. Ware called the rest week “big” in their efforts to get healthy while Miller saw only a small benefit, if any to the week off.

“In the big scheme of things it is not really a big deal. You have teams that play very week and still make it to the Super Bowl,” he said. “When to comes to Sunday it is not going to matter.”

Either way, the week off will allow the team to approach Pittsburgh at full-strength, a fact not lost on second-year outside linebacker Barrett. “We should have everybody as close to healthy as they have been all year. We are looking forward to having everybody back and with that comes our normal tenacious defense,” he said Monday.

The Steelers have allowed 33 sacks on the season and turned the ball over 28 times on offense. The Broncos edge rushers will play the most important part in creating negative plays for the Steelers and will have the best opportunity to get to the football. The last time these two teams met they sacked Roethlisberger three times, only one coming from the outside linebackers (Ray). They helped create two interceptions but did not cause a fumble. This time around, they understandably want to do better.

“We just have to keep attacking. We have to attack them harder than we did last game. We have to make a bigger difference. We have to start strong and finish strong,” Ray said Wednesday. “We allowed them to comeback and beat us. That’s on us. We should have finished the game when we had the chance.”

The Broncos led the game in Pittsburgh on Dec. 20 early, but let a 17-point lead disappear, resulting in a 34-27 loss. Now, just over three weeks later, the Broncos have a shot at redemption but more importantly, it is a playoff game with a short road to the Super Bowl on the line. The Broncos are possibly the most talented roster left in the NFL playoffs; you look no further than their pass rushers for evidence of that. All four are more than capable of impacting the game Sunday and they will certainly need to do so. Now, they must simply play for the entire pressure-filled, intense, physical game the Steelers will bring. If they do that, the Broncos believe they will come out on top.

“We have to do a better job,” Ray said intensely Wednesday. “If we play all four quarters, there is not a team that can beat us.”

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