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Broncos 23, Steelers 16: Three Keys, Unlocked

Posted Jan 17, 2016

It took all 46 players to get the Broncos out of the divisional round, including players who had ups and downs like Bennie Fowler.

DENVER -- Winning in the playoffs takes all 46 players on the active roster. And it often takes players who struggle at one point, but overcome their mistakes as the game progressed.

The Broncos would not be playing in the AFC Championship Game without players like those.

Their come-from-behind 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was fueled by players like cornerback Bradley Roby, who was beaten early after a miscommunication in the secondary but forced a fourth-quarter fumble, and wide receiver Bennie Fowler, who three plays later had the 31-yard catch-and-run on third-and-12 that put the shadow of back-to-back first-half drops behind him.

Together, they propelled the Broncos to their only touchdown drive of the day, a 13-play, 65-yard march that consumed 6:52 of the fourth quarter and gave the Broncos the lead for good.

"That's just a great example of our team in general," said TE Owen Daniels. "A lot of times, as a team, things aren't going great, whether it's offensively, defensively, whatever it is. But we find a way to make things happen down the road.

"That's just the way our team has been built this year. That's the team that we've created: Guys that aren't going to give up, that are going to keep working. That's what it's all about. It's great to see some of our guys do that."

How did the Three Keys turn out in the divisional--round win?

1. Stay balanced on offense.

It took some time, but the Broncos gradually and finally used an effective ground game to wear down the Steelers late.

C.J. Anderson was effective on his carries throughout the game, but with the Broncos down 13-12, the ground game took control. A long Anderson run was wiped out by a holding penalty against Michael Schofield, but after Fowler's 31-yard play, the Broncos turned to their rushing game. Eight of the final nine plays on that 13-play touchdown drive were runs, including five in succession to close the drive.

The runs weren't game-breaking; the Broncos averaged 3.2 yards on their 10 carries during that possession. But they were effective, and in the end, Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 110 yards on 31 carries. A 3.55-yard average on those runs wasn't spectacular, but the Broncos' patience and willingness to keep pounding paid late dividends.

"We finally lined up and ran the ball the way we're capable of running it," Kubiak said.

2. Limit the damage from Pittsburgh's receivers.

Denver tweaked its tactics from the last game against the Steelers, opting for more zone coverage to try and counter the Steelers' still-potent passing game That led to some open receivers, as the Steelers had three passes of at least 35 yards in the first three quarters: a 58-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger to Darrius Heyward-Bey, a 52-yarder to Martvius Bryant and a 37-yarder to Sammie Coates.

Chris Harris Jr.'s shoulder injury hurt the Broncos; he was forced into playing only sub-package snaps as he dealt with the pain. Roby became an every-down defender, and there were some communication issues that led to open receivers.

"We had some communication errors early on, and we fixed them," Roby said. It's something that can't happen in the playoffs, so we're going to go back, learn from it and keep moving."

It helped that Denver's defense stiffened deep in its own territory. On snaps from the 25-yard-line or closer, Roethlisberger went 1-for-4 for five yards, was sacked once for a seven-yard loss and had another sack that was wiped off the stat sheet because of a face-mask penalty against Pittsburgh's Marcus Gilbert.

Including the penalty, those six pass plays resulted in a net average loss of 2.8 yards.

3. Avoid mistakes.

The Broncos were far from perfect, and if they had lost, the seven drops by their wide receivers and running backs would have haunted them for months. But the drops, while frustrating, aren't game-breaking mistakes unless the football bounces into the hands of a defender for an interception -- or unless they come on a fourth down near the end of the game. That wasn't the case.

The swirling winds that buffeted the stadium wreaked havoc with the Broncos' passing game, making passes more difficult to judge with winds that gusted up to 36 miles per hour in the Denver area.

"It definitely had an effect on things," said TE Owen Daniels. "When it's blowing straight across the field the way it was, balls tend to dip and dive. It's not as direct a flight as you would expect, so you kind of have to adjust to it as you're getting to it."

"The ball was moving," Head Coach Gary Kubiak added. "It made a difference. But we kept our poise. We kept grinding. That's what our team's been about all year."

Bennie Fowler

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