The Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 5-3 away) get set for a tough road challenge against the Denver Broncos (8-8, 3-5 home) at Mile High Stadium in the 2012 AFC Wild Card playoffs, in what should be a gritty, grinding game between two of the league’s most oppressive defenses and two teams that have both struggled to find headway on offense in recent weeks.
With the Steelers very familiar with playoff preparations and sporting one of the best defensive units in the league, the Tim Tebow-led Broncos have a lot to worry about in this match-up, going up against the top-rated pass defense and the 8th ranked rush defense that allows under 100 yards per game. As Denver comes into today’s match-up losing three straight while averaging just 13.3 points per contest over that stretch, the first item of business for the Broncos is figuring out a way to put points on the board with an offense that is very heavy on the run, but completely inept in the passing game. Let’s take a look at some key areas for both teams that could lead them towards the divisional round of the playoffs next weekend.
For Denver: Get Willis McGahee going early. Denver has prevailed in 4 of 5 games when running back Willis McGahee (249 carries, 1,199 yards, 4 TDs) touches the ball at least 20 times. Though Denver fans still for the most part are bought into the clutch play shown by Tim Tebow as being the key difference this season, McGahee hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for moving the football for the Broncos when Tebow can’t. Facing one of the league’s toughest defenses, the Denver offensive line is going to have to go above and beyond to keep McGahee and Tebow putting up yards on the ground, and giving McGahee the rock plenty of times will help take pressure off Tebow, and hopefully open up the passing game a bit. This may be the toughest area for Denver to break through in, as Pittsburgh allows just 4 yards per carry on the ground and only 7 rushing touchdowns, but with Pittsburgh ranking as the top team in the league against the pass, the Broncos running game has to see a huge day from McGahee to give them a shot at victory.
Tim Tebow has to be accurate. Tebow was absolutely atrocious last week, completing just 6 of 22 passes with an interception in a 7-3 loss at Kansas City. While Tebow leads the league in yards per pass at 12.2, if he can’t complete passes in the face of the shutdown Pittsburgh secondary, it’s going to be a long, painful day for the Denver faithful. The Broncos do have a good crop of speedy receivers with Eric Decker (44 catches, 612 yards, 8 TDs) and Demaryius Thomas (32 catches, 551 yards, 4 TDs) being the best of the bunch, so finding a way to get the ball in their hands is essential. While team president John Elway has told his quarterback to just ‘pull the trigger,” in today’s game, that won’t do any good if he can’t actually hit one of his own receivers. Tebow’s run of six straight wins came with his ability to avoid big turnovers, and without improving his %46.5 completion rate in tonight’s game, we could see Pittsburgh prevail with a pick-six, or a handful of drive-killing interceptions.
Get at Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh is banged up in the running game, as starter Rashard Mendenhall is out for the season with a torn ACL, and has hedged their game plan much more on the pass than they have in recent years. Roethlisberger is a gamer, thriving in the face of adversity, but he’s not %100 due to a lingering high-ankle sprain, and the numbers show it (95.6 passer rating, 21 TDs in 13 games before being injured, 62.2 rating, 0 TDs and 3 INTs after injury). As we saw in the Pittsburgh vs. San Francisco game, the Steelers can’t do anything on offense if the pass rush is able to get in Big Ben’s face. Denver needs to dial up plenty of blitz packages, and force Roethlisberger out of the pocket as much as possible. With starting center Maurkice Pouncey out for Pittsburgh, exploiting the offensive line up the middle with linebacker Von Miller (11.5 sacks) would serve Denver’s cause well.
For Pittsburgh: Make Tim Tebow’s life difficult. With Denver putting a lot of pressure on Tebow to deliver in the passing game as well as on the ground, getting to the scrambling quarterback will help to keep him out of synch with the passing game, and force him to make questionable plays. This becomes all the more important late in the game, especially if the score is close. For whatever reason, Tebow comes alive in the 4th quarter, and can find a way to win even when things look bleak. However, as we saw last week in Denver’s 7-3 loss at Kansas City, man-to-man coverage forced Tebow to immediately turn to the run, which he did not have success with (6 carries, 16 yards). Pittsburgh could have similar success by locking down key targets Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and allowing their defensive line to focus on containing the Denver ground game. Pittsburgh’s secondary, while missing safety Ryan Clark, is one of the best in the business at shutting down passing attacks, and without putting up yards in the air, the Broncos will become very one sided very quickly, playing right into Pittsburgh’s game plan.
Protect Ben Roethlisberger. Denver does a pretty good job getting pressure to the quarterback, issuing 41 sacks on the year. As mentioned before, Big Ben’s numbers have fallen dramatically since injuring his ankle, and he’ll likely still struggle with moving around in the pocket if the pressure comes often. However, if he can get some time to throw downfield to his favorite receivers Mike Williams (72 catches, 1193 yards, 8 TDs) and Antonio Brown (69 catches, 1108 yards, 2 TDs), and work mostly on short passing plays to tight end Heath Miller and veteran Hines Ward, the Steelers should be able to keep drives moving and generate some scoring chances.
Get good production out of RB Isaac Redman. Redman (110 carries, 479 yards, 3 TDs) actually has a better yards/carry average than the injured Mendenhall did (4.4 vs. 4.1), and has to be a factor to help take some pressure off Big Ben. Holding onto the football is a big key for Redman today, who coughed up the football twice against the Cleveland Browns despite a decent 19 carry, 92 yard effort, but if he can put up yardage better than or equal to what is laid down by the Broncos, the Steelers have a big advantage in this match-up.
Betting lines for Pittsburgh vs. Denver at Oddsmaker Sportsbook
For bets on today’s defensive battle between the Steelers and Broncos, we turn to one of the featured online sportsbooks at Oddsmaker, where we find the playoff-familiar Pittsburgh Steelers coming into Denver as a healthy 9 point favorite against the spread (EVEN money), with the Broncos getting 9 points of cushion to play with at -120 odds. On the money line, the Steelers get -340 odds, Denver gets +280, and in the over/under battle the 34 points set out is one of the lowest totals we’ve seen during the NFL season. With the odds not looking great for making money on the money line, the best bets may come taking Denver to cover in a low-scoring game, or simply expecting that the two defenses will limit offensive opportunities enough to stay short of the very low 34 points on the over/under.
Our Pick to Win:
Sorry Tebow backers, this one isn’t going to go your way. While Denver has shown big improvements this season, their inability to pass the football makes them far too one-sided on offense to keep up with a team like Pittsburgh, which prepares like no other for the playoffs, and has tons of experience in big games like these against much better football programs. While Pittsburgh may struggle to generate a ton of offense with an injured Roethlisberger and a missing Rashard Mendenhall, Denver won’t find any success in the passing game, and turnovers could become a factor early if Tebow does follow Elway’s advice to pull the trigger against the best secondary in the NFL. As has been the case in most of Pittsburgh’s games on the national stage, the scoring is going to be low, and the game tempo is going to be set to: Crawl. While that might open up a chance for Denver to get into the game via their defense or a fortunate turnover, I’ll expect Tebow to make critical mistakes, falter in the passing game, and find no room to run on the ground, all of which will eventually equate to a 4th straight loss for the Broncos. In the lowest scoring game we see all year in the playoffs, the Steelers shut down the Broncos 21-10, and send the Tebow believers into an offseason of questioning whether their faith has been improperly placed.