In what could be the game of the week, the league’s top defense takes on the league’s most explosive offense as the Denver Broncos travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. This game could prove pivotal in deciding the final landscape of the AFC playoffs. Denver are coming off a tough loss against the Raiders, and are still fighting both New England and Cincinnati for the AFC’s number one seed. After dealing with several injuries on both sides of the ball, the Broncos could be ready for a playoff push. Pittsburgh are one of the league’s most dangerous teams right now. They knocked off the Bengals last week and now face Denver in another marquee match-up. Currently vying with Kansas City and the Jets for an AFC wild card berth, another big performance will see the Steelers close the gap.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Can Denver shut down Pittsburgh’s offense?
Despite recovering from their injuries, the Broncos struggled to keep Oakland from scoring in the second half last week, which eventually led to a 15-12 loss. Against a much more explosive offense this week, Denver’s reign as the league’s best defense could be over. Pittsburgh also have much more skill position depth than the Raiders and have a better running game. The Broncos do tend to step up their game for big matches, but that may not be enough against the surging Steelers. Especially with injuries rearing their head once again. Safety T.J. Ward and defensive end Malik Jackson did not participate in practice, which would be a big blow for the Broncos.
2. Can Denver run the ball?
With injuries to both C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman keeping them side-lined against the Raiders, Denver struggled to run the ball. That put more pressure on Brock Osweiler, who was sacked five times by Khalil Mack. Anderson was limited in practice, while Hillman participated fully. However, there is a more immediate problem with Denver’s offense. They have not scored a touchdown in their last 23 drives, which is tied with the Colts for the worst active streak in the league. Against an offense like Pittsburgh, the Broncos would likely need to score often to keep pace. That could be a tough prospect for an offense that has eclipsed 30 points just once all season.
3. Pressuring Brock Osweiler
The Steelers have played well on defense this season, and have a fast, aggressive front that will cause problems for the inexperienced Osweiler. James Harrison is still a hard-hitting presence across the middle, while cornerback William Gay can keep pace with Denver’s receivers. However, linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree and safety Mike Mitchell did not participate fully in practice and may not play on Sunday. However, the Broncos may not have Demaryius Thomas, who also did not practise this week.
Match-up to watch: Chris Harris Jr. vs Antonio Brown
Harris is a small corner who plays big, and forms a potent duo with the bigger Aqib Talib. Brown is one of the best receivers in the league, despite lacking size. The match-up between Harris and Brown could decide the game, even if Brown is locked down. Drawing Harris away from Pittsburgh’s other receivers could be key for the Steelers, who are deep at receiver and have two outstanding secondary options in Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers will knock down another AFC juggernaut with a win over Denver. Pittsburgh have enough weapons to spread the Broncos out and pick apart their injured defense. Brock Osweiler doesn’t have enough to keep pace with Ben Roethlisberger, especially if Denver struggle to run the ball again.