The Pittsburgh Steelers are in Denver today to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the Divisional round, vying for the right to take on the Patriots in the AFC Championship game next week. In so doing, they will be playing without a full deck of cards—and some of the others bent.
One of those bent playing cards is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered an injured shoulder on a late third quarter sack last week. He sat out most of the fourth quarter before returning on the final drive, clearly physically impaired, to lead the game-winning drive.
He will be playing today, but how much that shoulder affects him, either physically or mentally, remains to be seen, and that will certainly be something to watch for, as it could shape the way that the offense chooses to, or has to, attack the Broncos defense.
The Steelers figure to play less of a vertical game with Roethlisberger’s range potentially limited due to his shoulder, which means that the backs and tight ends could play a central role in Pittsburgh’s passing attack, thus focusing in on Denver’s linebackers, rather than the secondary.
That in itself will be something to keep an eye on, given the platoon of unfamiliar or sparsely used faces that can suddenly emerge to prominence as a result of how things have played out in terms of health—not to mention the absence of Antonio Brown.
Last week, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint caught four passes for 60 yards, including a 27-yarder and a seven-yard gain that converted a third down on the game-winning drive. He was targeted eight times, with three targets deflected.
The Steelers’ other running back, Jordan Todman, hasn’t been a target yet for the team, but he has it on his resume from his time in Jacksonville. Rookie tight end Jesse James could also factor into the equation—perhaps even the rare appearance of Sammie Coates could play a role.
Defensively, interior pressure will be key to getting to Manning, who gets passes off quickly but lacks mobility. Against such quarterbacks, the shortest route is typically the most effective. To that end, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, as well as the inside linebacker, especially Ryan Shazier, will need to get after him and prevent him from getting many quality looks.
The Broncos have also been successful running the ball lately, rushing for over 400 yards over the course of the last three games of the season, one of which came against Pittsburgh. While the passing game should be the focus, it can’t be at the expense of letting the ground game take root and begin to flourish.
Perhaps most importantly, they must win the turnover battle. Their track record when they don’t is terrible this year, and they needed every one of the four turnovers that they got last week to squeak by for their first playoff victory in five years. The offense is limited as it is and can’t afford to give away possessions, while the defense must counterbalance its own weaknesses with opportunism.