No. 6 Steelers @ No. 1 Broncos | NFC Divisional Playoff

Steelers vs Broncos
NFL Divisional Round
today, 4:40 PM
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado

Denver offense vs. Pittsburgh defense

Peyton Manning is back, which means the Broncos will often find themselves audibling into the smartest running play. As far as what Manning brings through the air, that remains to be seen. He only threw nine passes in Week 17 against the Chargers. A few of those were completions outside the field numbers, which require a certain amount of arm strength. But all of them were against a Chargers secondary that was down to its backups.

The Steelers don’t have great secondary personnel, but the group has lately overachieved in coordinator Keith Butler’s pressure-heavy scheme. Manning might be the most cerebral quarterback of all time, but against voluminous, disguise-based defenses he’s been known to stress and overthink things. There can be an upside to this, of course (see Manning’s 539 career touchdowns and 71,940 passing yards). But there’s also the potential for a downside, which, with the 39-year-old seeing his first full 60-minute action since Nov. 8, would come in the form of a fragmented out-of-rhythm passing game.

If Pittsburgh’s blitzes don’t generate disruption and the occasional big-play opportunities, the Broncos will have a shot at scoring 30. It’s hard to envision safety Mike Mitchell and corners Antwon Blake and William Gay handling the likes Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

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Watch Steelers vs Broncos NFC Divisional Playoff Live

Watch Steelers vs Broncos NFC Divisional Playoff Live

Pittsburgh offense vs. Denver defense

What happened when the Steelers posted 34 points and 354 yards through the air against Denver’s top-ranked defense in Week 15 was simple: Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris failed in man coverage against Antonio Brown. (Harris is far from the only one in the NFL.) In almost any other scenario, a player as good as Harris would get the benefit of the doubt and be given an opportunity to avenge the game as a pure man defender against Brown. But the Broncos seemed snake-bitten after Brown’s 189 yards. Head coach Gary Kubiak even made the case for the sixth-year wideout being the league’s MVP.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in the two games following the loss to the Steelers, the Broncos changed up their approach. In Week 16 against Cincinnati, they went with their usual man-to-man for much of the first half but shifted to zone in the second half. They did the same the next week against San Diego. It would be surprising if they don’t continue incorporating more zone this Sunday.

It will also be surprising if the Broncos do not keep both safeties back in coverage, inviting Pittsburgh to run the ball. Ben Roethlisberger has become a cerebral QB. One of the byproducts of his maturation is a willingness to check into running plays against a light defensive box. Roethlisberger will do this regardless if it’s DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint or Jordan Todman in the backfield. All three have shown the necessary vision and short-area agility to create their own yards between the tackles. But sturdy as the backs have been, and adept as Pittsburgh can be with pull-blockers in the ground game (namely All-Pro right guard David DeCastro), a defense is far better off taking its chances against these guys with a light box than it is daring Roethlisberger and his receivers to beat them.

Watch Steelers vs Broncos NFC Divisional Playoff Live

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