The Broncos' regular-season opener isn't for another four months, but over the next few weeks, DenverBroncos.com will take an early look at each game on the Broncos' 2020 schedule. We don't know how injuries could impact each contest, but we'll present the pressing storylines, matchups, questions and more.
It's never too early to start talking football.
We continue with Denver's road opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Storylines to monitor:
After a "Monday Night Football" opener against the Titans, the Broncos will head across the country to face the Steelers. Pittsburgh hasn't made the playoffs in either of the last two years, but they're a traditional NFL powerhouse and Heinz Field is among the toughest places to play in the NFL. It will be worth monitoring how Drew Lock and the offense handles their first road test against one of the league's toughest defenses. When the Steelers have the ball, they feature some dynamic players in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back James Conner, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Eric Ebron. Roethlisberger's return, of course, is one of the biggest factors in the game.
Then, of course, there's the Devin Bush trade.
Bush will forever be connected to the Broncos after Denver traded the 10th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to Pittsburgh for the 20th-overall pick, 52nd-overall pick and a 2020 third-round pick. The Broncos netted tight end Noah Fant, quarterback Drew Lock (after another trade) and center Lloyd Cushenberry III in the trade. Pittsburgh secured Bush, who started 15 games for the Steelers last season and picked off two passes while recovering four fumbles. If Bush is matched up on Fant at any point, this will be a fun matchup to watch. And, if the Broncos win, it would be at least a small indication that they made the right choice.
Players to watch:
DT Cameron Heyward and S Minkah Fitzpatrick
The Steelers ranked fifth in total defense in 2019 behind strong efforts from first-team All-Pros Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Heyward. Fitzpatrick, a safety, could pose problems for Lock as he makes his first road start of the season. After he arrived in Pittsburgh following a mid-season trade, Fitzpatrick recorded five interceptions, two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns. Likewise, Heyward will be a handful at defensive tackle for Dalton Risner, Graham Glasgow and perhaps Cushenberry. He's been a first-team All-Pro in two of the last three seasons and tallied 83 tackles, nine sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hits last year. Both players could wreck the game.
The question mark:
Will Big Ben come up big?
The Steelers' hopes of returning to the postseason after a two-year playoff drought likely rest on Roethlisberger's throwing elbow. He suffered the injury in the second game of the 2019 season, and it knocked him out for the rest of the year. He's expected to be ready for the start of the 2020 season, but how much rust will there be? If he's the Pro Bowl quarterback that he was for four consecutive years from 2014-17, this could become one of the Broncos' most difficult games of the year. And when Roethlisberger is good, he makes everyone better. Smith-Schuster and Conner both took steps back last season after being named Pro Bowlers in 2018. It's clear Roethlisberger brings out the best in them and makes the offense go. Roethlisberger threw one touchdown and two interceptions against the Broncos in the teams' last meeting. If Denver can limit him to a similar performance, this game becomes winnable.
An opposing view:
Missi Matthews, a team reporter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, on linebacker Devin Bush's potential in Year 2:
"I think the sky is the limit for Devin Bush. Being a rookie is never an easy thing, being that first-round draft pick when you know the team had to trade up 10 spots to get you. That was a position the Steelers' defense was really missing — some stability. He was a rookie and probably had some great moments, also had some not-so-great moments, because you're learning on the fly, being thrown into the mix. He played so many snaps, was able to keep up, keep his body healthy. I think he will really get more in tune with the playbook in Year 2. Coach [Mike] Tomlin always talks about the Year 2 jump of wanting to see even more out of guys because you've had the chance to go through it. You know what to expect. Also Minkah Fitzpatrick coming in helps settle the defense, as well. I think that helped Devin a lot, too."
For more from Matthews on the Steelers and how the Week 2 matchup could unfold, click here.
The last meeting:
Denver put a major dent in the Steelers' 2018 playoff hopes when they secured a 24-17 Week 12 win. Pittsburgh entered that game with a six-game win streak, and the Broncos were only 4-6 on the season.
The Broncos benefited from a goal-line forced fumble by Will Parks, an interception from Chris Harris Jr. and a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown by Phillip Lindsay. Shelby Harris then sealed the game for Denver when he intercepted Roethlisberger in the end zone in the final minute.
Lindsay ran for 110 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Emmanuel Sanders caught seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Antonio Brown, who was Roethlisberger's target on the game-ending interception, left Pittsburgh following the end of the season.