Many have already written the Broncos off this season and turned their eyes towards the future.
But, was that judgement made too soon? Entering Week 12, the Broncos now find themselves just a game behind the sixth wildcard seed with a matchup against the superb Steelers looming. Outside of that matchup and Week 17’s home battle with the Chargers, Denver goes on the easiest four-game stretch they have seen this season.
The odds of Denver going undefeated against the Bengals, 49ers and Raiders on the road and the Browns at home may be slim, but it is within the realm of possibility and should provide Broncos’ fans with some hope. 8-8 will not be good enough to make the playoffs, though, meaning Denver will have to either beat the Steelers or complete the sweep of the Chargers, to bring their record to 9-7 and keep their playoff hopes alive.
Now that the stage is set, let’s take a look at the Steelers and the problems they could present the Broncos with.
Instead, the most explosive element of the Steelers’ offense has been the receiving core led by the always combustive duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown has not played to the MVP level he did in 2016 and 2017 but has still been exceptional. His 11 touchdowns are tied with the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill for the league lead.
Smith-Schuster has played above and beyond as well. One could even argue that he’s had a better season than Brown. Schuster has more receptions, yards, receptions of more than 20 yards, yards after catch, and first downs converted, as well as a higher yards per catch average. All while getting 16 fewer targets than Brown.
Another oft-mentioned piece of the Steelers has been running back James Conner. Conner started the season as Le’Veon Bell‘s backup, but thanks to Bell’s holdout and his own high-level play, Conner has earned the Steelers starting gig for the foreseeable future.
Through just ten games, Conner has rushed for ten touchdowns. During his career with the Steelers, Le’Veon Bell never reached ten rushing touchdowns over the course of a season. Power is one of the hometown hero’s greatest assets. Conner is averaging over 2.9 yards after contact, good for seventh-best in the league among running backs with at least 125 attempts. Tackling will be key for Denver if they want to slow down the kid from Pittsburgh.
Conner is a very talented back, but the true reason the Steelers have been able to replace Bell without much of a hitch has been the fantastic offensive line. Pittsburgh’s 0-line has been the new-age ‘Steel Curtain’. Led by All-Pros Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and Pro Bowler Alejandro Villanueva the Steelers have supplanted the Cowboys as the league’s best offensive line.
According to PFF, the Steelers pass blocking efficiency rating of 90.6 is the best in the league, and four of Pittsburgh’s lineman have earned a pass blocking efficiency of 98 or over on a scale of 1-100. The vaunted tandem of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb has plenty of work cut out for them.
Steelers’ quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger will get his fair share of praise as a future Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but this year he hasn’t played to his usual level. In the first half of Week 11’s matchup with the Jaguars, Roethlisberger was a liability. He completed just eight of his first 19 attempts and throwing two interceptions before leading the Steelers back in the second half.
In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, “Big Ben” is having his worst season since 2008, when he threw for just 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. PFF currently grades Roethlisberger as the league’s 19th best quarterback, behind the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, and Baker Mayfield.
Roethlisberger isn’t the only Steeler with a poor grade though. In fact, it is hard to find a good grade in their secondary.
Cornerback Mike Hilton is the only Pittsburgh corner with a coverage grade above 80, with an 80.1. If the Steelers used the standard grading system schools used, this would be one of just two of the Steeler corners, whose job it is to cover other wide receivers, with a coverage grade above an F. The grade curve in the Steelers’ classroom must be steep. Sign me up!
Even at 7-2, the Steelers are a team with few weaknesses. They may not be the most talented roster in the league (although they’re certainly in the running), but they are the most well-rounded. For Denver to win and keep their playoff hopes alive for at least one more week, the Broncos will have to exploit the few flaws Pittsburgh has.
Denver hosts the Steelers at 2:25 p.m. MST on Sunday.