Posted Mon Nov 9th by Monty
The Denver Broncos can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh is a team that started slowly this year, barely winning in Week One and losing two straight to fall to 1-2. They’ve put together a four-game win streak since and look to make it five against the 6-1 Broncos on Monday Night.
Their two losses came by three points each, and both included fourth quarter missed field goals by Kicker Jeff Reed. The defending Super Bowl champs could very well be 7-0.
But they didn’t just get luckier to fix their win record — they got better. The pass protection has been better, the running game has been better, the defense has improved, and Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career. The Broncos are inviting a complete team coming off a bye to Denver tonight; luckily, they have a complete team to match. This should be a fantastic Monday Night match. Let’s break it down.
The Steelers are no longer a run-first team — not nearly. In their opening drive against San Diego, Pittsburgh threw, threw, threw, ran, ran, and ran for four first downs and a touchdown, churning up 79 yards along the way. The offense was flawless.
Watching film, the first thing that stands out is how much the Steelers like to spread it out and line up in non-traditional formations. Rather than going three wide or two wide plus tight end etc., I saw a lot of bunch formations; a lot of spread formations with four WR’s lined up to one side with a single receiver set on the other. Ben likes to roll out, and the pass game opens up the run game with effective use of draws.
The second thing that stands out is that, when the Steelers throw, they throw long. They wait for the play to develop. Ben gets sacked a lot, but it’s also because he’s holding onto the football, waiting for players to get open.
The positive effect of this is two-fold, and happened often in the games I watched: someone will get open eventually, and Roethlisberger is accurate enough to hit them for a big gain. Or, if someone doesn’t get open, Ben will dump it off. This player usually has five-to-ten yards of running room in front of him, since the opponents’ secondary is deep downfield covering Pittsburgh’s plethora of weapons.
The net effect is the same either way: big gains. But it all starts up front. If the Broncos can get after Big Ben before Roethlisberger has the chance to make a play, they can disrupt this offense.
I also don’t take Roethlisberger’s public desires to run the no-huddle against Denver seriously. Not in Mile High. That’s suicide, especially since the wide receivers run downfield deep so often.
Regarding the running game: Rashard Mendenhall runs really well. He doesn’t get a ton of total yards, because the Steelers aren’t a run-first team anymore, but when he gets the ball he’s both physical and fast. More than anything I noticed that Mendenhall gets an extra two yards after contact, just about every play. He keeps his feet moving and falls forward. Sometimes he breaks free of the tackle altogether.
So, run or pass, for the Broncos to stop this Pittsburgh offense, it all starts up front.
I still remember watching the NFL season opener, Tennessee at Pittsburgh, and thinking, “Man, Troy Polamalu is making an early case for Defensive MVP.” He wouldn’t finish the game due to injury (sorry for jinxing ya, Troy), but now that he’s healthy, the point remains: the guy is a game changer. Simply put, he’s the total package. He’s incredibly fast, very physical, and is as smart as they come.
And while Ryan Clark isn’t expected to play, Polamalu is the type of player that improves the play of those around him (much akin to Denver’s own Brian Dawkins). I don’t expect Clark’s absence to be too much of a factor.
The Steelers are a solid defensive unit from top to bottom. Their depth has been tested with the loss of Aaron Smith and others, but they remain sound defensively. In fact, they’ve gotten better as the season has progressed.
Lawrence Timmons isn’t expected to play, and that is good news for the Broncos. Timmons is an underrated blitzer, and although he’s been suffering from an ankle injury most of the season, he’s often in the backfield, near the quarterback on sacks he may not tally.
And sacks will be tallied. The Steelers are bound to take a look at Baltimore’s gameplan and try to mirror it, getting aggressive and trying to create mismatches in pass protection. Even the Broncos’ best were mismatched against on Sunday — the Ravens were the first team to create one against Ryan Clady in the young tackle’s career (Jarret Johnson) — can the likes of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison match it? Maybe.
Finally, as anyone would expect from the past 40 years of “Steelers football” (I can’t believe I just said that), the Steelers are the top-ranked team in the league in terms of rush defense. The Broncos face another tough team against the run tonight.
The Broncos were humbled last week against Baltimore. I said before that the one key to the game would be giving Kyle Orton enough time to deliver the football. That didn’t happen, and the Broncos lost.
This week, the key is switched: the Broncos can’t give Big Ben enough time. Pressure, pressure, pressure. If it happens, the Broncos should win. If it doesn’t, they simply won’t.
As I outlined, Pittsburgh’s sack numbers are more a product of Ben holding onto the football, waiting for plays to develop, rather than real issues with pass protection. That’s all by design, too, and the Steelers o-line has really come on of late.
Don’t underestimate Pittsburgh’s pass protection (nor Mendenhall’s unheralded ability in that area).
Still, I think the Broncos’ pass rush is the fiercest Pittsburgh has faced this season, and I think Elvis Dumervil and company can find a way to get there. I expect to add 2+ sacks to his three career takedowns of Big Ben. I also expect to see plenty of inside blitzes from Andra Davis and Brian Dawkins.
Prediction: Broncos, 21-20 in a nailbiter, and — why not? — after a missed Jeff Reed field goal in the fourth quarter. Yours in the comments.