The Pittsburgh Steelers offense was dealt a big blow Friday as Antonio Brown was ruled out for Sunday’s AFC Divisional round matchup with the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field in Mile High Stadium.
Brown has been the best receiver in football over the last three years as a member of the black-and-gold, so it’s a major loss for an offense that is significantly banged up heading into the second round of the playoffs.
While the injuries look difficult to overcome on paper, the Steelers have been down this road all season with the “next man up” mentality helping them reach the playoffs as Le’Veon Bell, Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger and Stephon Tuitt have all missed significant time this season.
The onus of replacing Brown’s production falls on the trio of Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, along with the rookie Sammie Coates, who hasn’t received a hat on game day since November 15.
Fortunately for the Steelers, the receiving corps is very deep and capable of making some splash plays after the catch as long as Roethlisberger is able to go Sunday.
With that said, here are three matchups to watch in Sunday’s game against the Broncos.
Pittsburgh offensive line vs. Denver front seven:
In the first matchup between these two teams back in December at Heinz Field, the Denver front seven won this matchup handily, sacking Roethlisberger three times and forcing him to throw the ball an astounding 55 times in the 34-27 win due to the fact that the Steelers simply couldn’t muster any semblance of a running game at home.
Now, on the road the importance of establishing a running game early with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman is that much more important, especially with Roethlisberger dealing with a shoulder injury.
Up front Cody Wallace, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva have to get going on the ground, bringing a nasty edge to this game against a tenacious Bronco front seven led by Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and Von Miller.
In the first matchup, the Steelers rushed for just 23 yards on 17 carries (1.4 yards-per-carry). That won’t cut it this week and if they can’t establish a running game it will be a quick exit for the Steelers.
By establishing a running game similar to what they did last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers will be able to take some of the pressure off of Roethlisberger in the passing game, especially considering he’s dinged up.
Heath Miller vs. Broncos pass defense
The last time these two teams played Miller hauled in just three passes for 12 yards, making a majority of his impact as a blocker in the run and pass game.
Now, with Brown out for Sunday’s game, the Steelers will need a significant threat in the middle of the field to help open things up on the outside for Bryant, Wheaton and Heyward-Bey.
Enter Miller, who has made a living in the middle of the field on short-to-intermediate routes throughout his career with Roethlisberger.
Miller will likely draw the matchup of Danny Trevathan, T.J. Ward and possibly Darian Stewart, should be healthy enough to play.
Trevathan might be one of the best coverage linebackers in football, but Miller doesn’t win with speed and athleticism. He wins by running crisp, precise routes and knowing where to sit in zone coverage.
He’ll have to be on the top of his game in the passing game if the Steelers want to be able to move the ball up and down the field enough to put some points on the board.
Steelers pass defense vs. Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis
Neither of the Denver tight ends had productive days against Pittsburgh in the last matchup, combining for just three catches for 17 yards in the loss.
However, with Peyton Manning taking over the starting role once again, I expect him to utilize Davis and Daniels quite often, Sunday, to help offset the attention that Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders will draw from the Steelers secondary.
Pittsburgh has improved as the season has progressed at covering tight ends, but that could all fall apart, Sunday, should Daniels or Davis get going with Manning back under center.
Will Allen will likely draw the matchup of shadowing one of these two tight ends in a similar fashion that he has done all year.
Last week Tyler Eifert did get loose for five catches for 58 yards on nine targets, but a lot of that damage was done on short passes that allowed Eifert to make plays in space after the catch.
Davis is the biggest threat in that category, but Daniels has been relatively quiet down the stretch.
The veteran tight end who has been with Gary Kubiak for his entire career is a sleeping giant waiting to bust out in a big way.