The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers offense faced the self-proclaimed “No Fly Zone” Broncos secondary, they got taken for nearly 400 passing yards and three aerial touchdowns, with the Steelers scoring over 30 points in the game. It was the first 300-yard passing game and 30-point game that they had allowed all season, and only one other team had put three passes in the end zone.
But things will be rather different the next time these two teams play, with the biggest difference being that they will actually have their starting safety tandem back. Or at least they figure to, depending on how the week develops.
During the two teams’ first meeting late in the regular season, the Broncos had their cornerbacks, to be sure, namely Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league this season, but they were contending with reserves behind them, which inevitably affected the effectiveness of the secondary.
T.J. Ward, a coveted free agent acquisition a couple of seasons ago, missed several games for the Broncos late in the year with an ankle injury, with the game against the Steelers being the final game that he missed before returning for the final two games of the regular season.
In 12 games played, Ward made 62 tackles, forcing two fumbles and recording two sacks with six passes defensed, having earned a reputation as a strong in-the-box safety. The Steelers did not have to worry about him during the first game, but they will now.
Also figuring to return is Darian Stewart, the Broncos’ other starting safety, who played 15 games, missing only the game against the Steelers with a hamstring injury. But it is notable that he left the regular season finale with a hamstring injury as well, and it is a situation that they are monitoring.
Stewart recorded 63 tackles with one sack and one interception and 10 passes defensed on the season, providing a strong back end as the supporting free safety for Harris and Talib. Getting him back would be a boost for that secondary, and another challenge for an ailing Steelers passing game.
Omar Bolden, loosely considering the Broncos’ third safety, also missed the Steelers game with a hamstring injury. In fact, he missed the last four regular season games, as well as three games earlier in the season, but from the sounds of things, he figures to be more likely to play than not.
Against the Steelers, Denver had to start David Bruton and Josh Bush at safety. Bruton has been a longtime Bronco, but a career backup, with his three games started this season serving as a career-high in his seventh year. He did for a fumble and intercepted two passes. As for Bush, he is in his first full season with the Broncos, and has started eight games due to injury recording one interception.
By and large, Denver has obviously been able to make do with their depth at safety, but it was a clear deficiency against the Steelers that Pittsburgh will probably not have the same benefit from a second time. And this time, it will be a road game, possibly even with Antonio Brown, as the injuries have flipped the other way.