ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The only team to shred the Broncos' top-ranked pass defense is on its way to Denver.
Pittsburgh's bruising, eventful 18-16 win at Paul Brown Stadium sends the Steelers to Denver for a rematch just four weeks after the Steelers scored 24 unanswered points to close a 34-27 win over the Broncos at Heinz Field on Dec. 20.
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger was the only quarterback to throw for at least 300 yards against the Broncos, finishing with 40 completions in 55 attempts for 380 yards and three touchdowns. The Broncos made the Steelers one-dimensional by neutralizing running back DeAngelo Williams, but for the first time all season, the Steelers were able to overcome not having a multi-faceted attack, because Roethisberger and Antonio Brown sizzled.
It's a performance that rankled the Broncos' defense, and will ensure they have ample motivation even beyond what already exists for a postseason game. They will want to atone for what happened last month. Meanwhile, the Steelers will enter confident that they can repeat their performance against a defense that should be healthier by next week, but will still have plenty of players coming off injuries, including DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris Jr., T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart and Brandon Marshall.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER:Roethlisberger is 11-5 all-time in the playoffs and 6-2 away from Pittsburgh. That includes a 34-17 win in the AFC Championship Game in Denver 10 years ago this month.
He remains the same Big Ben as ever: impossible for one man to bring down, able to read the field and find late-opening receivers and still with some of the best footwork and feel for the pass rush in the game. However, the status of the right shoulder he injured Saturday will likely dominate the week.
WR ANTONIO BROWN:No receiver has put together back-to-back seasons like Brown, who has posted astonishing reception totals of 129 and 136 catches the last two years and now has more catches after six seasons (526) than anyone in NFL history, even though his career got off to a quiet start with just 16 receptions as a rookie. Brown can line up anywhere, can beat you inside and outside, and is as effective short and making defenders miss as he is on go routes up the sideline. There isn't a weak point in his game, as Chris Harris Jr. learned when he gave up two touchdowns to Brown -- the only scores he has allowed since November 2013.
But after absorbing a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from an out-of-control Vontaze Burflict in the final minute of Saturday's win, Brown is in the concussion protocol.
DE CAMERON HEYWARD:One of the league's most disruptive three-technique defensive ends, Hayward led the Steelers with seven sacks and helps occupy blockers to create one-on-one opportunities for the Steelers' edge rushers. Heyward is credited with 44 quarterback hurries by profootballfocus.com and is also one of the league's most effective run defenders. His ability to create a quick interior pass rush will force Peyton Manning to make quick reads and deliver to avoid the sacks that Brock Osweiler took last month.
THE LAST TIME IN THE PLAYOFFS:Broncos 29, Steelers 23; Jan. 8, 2012. Tim Tebow's 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime sent Sports Authority Field at Mile High into raptures and gave the 8-8 Broncos a stunning upset over the defending AFC champions. The Broncos had backed into the playoffs following three straight losses to close the regular season, but sprinted to a 20-6 halftime lead before the Steelers roared back in the second half, tying the game on a 31-yard Roethlisberger-to-Jerricho Cotchery touchdown connection. Pittsburgh had momentum, but thanks to the quick Tebow-to-Thomas strike, its potent offense never saw the field.
SERIES RECORD:Broncos lead, 14-8-1 (Broncos lead, 4-3 in the postseason).
|STATISTIC||BRONCOS OFFENSE||STEELERS DEFENSE|
|POINTS||22.2 (19th)||19.9 (11th)|
|YARDAGE/PLAY||5.39 (19th)||5.51 (18th)|
|YARDAGE/GAME||355.8 (16th)||363.1 (21st)|
|FIRST-DOWN RATE||One every 3.69 plays (23rd)||One every 3.49 plays (19th)|
|POINTS PER POSSESSION||1.64 (24th)||1.77 (13th)|
|YARDS PER POSSESSION||29.84 (24th)||30.82 (13th)|
|TURNOVERS||31 giveaways (T-29th)||30 takeaways (T-3rd)|
|YARDAGE/PLAY||6.16 (21st)||6.45 (17th)|
|YARDAGE/GAME||248.1 (14th)||271.9 (30th)|
|FIRST-DOWN RATE||One every 3.21 plays (20th)||One every 2.91 plays (23rd)|
|SACK RATE||One every 16.54 plays (T-20th)||One every 14.02 plays (8th)|
|YARDAGE/PLAY||4.18 (13th)||3.82 (6th)|
|YARDAGE/GAME||107.4 (17th)||91.2 (5th)|
|FIRST-DOWN RATE||One every 4.84 plays (22nd)||One every 5.38 plays (2nd)|
|STATISTIC||STEELERS OFFENSE||BRONCOS DEFENSE|
|POINTS||26.4 (4th)||18.5 (4th)|
|YARDAGE/PLAY||6.26 (2nd)||4.39 (1st)|
|YARDAGE/GAME||395.4 (3rd)||283.1 (1st)|
|FIRST-DOWN RATE||One every 3.39 plays (9th)||One every 4.25 plays (1st)|
|POINTS PER POSSESSION||2.20 (7th)||1.43 (1st)|
|YARDS PER POSSESSION||35.75 (3rd)||24.47 (1st)|
|TURNOVERS||28 giveaways (T-22nd)||27 takeaways (T-7th)|
|YARDAGE/PLAY||7.39 (2nd)||5.11 (1st)|
|YARDAGE/GAME||287.7 (3rd)||199.6 (1st)|
|FIRST-DOWN RATE||One every 3.01 plays (12th)||One every 3.86 plays (1st)|
|SACK RATE||One every 18.88 plays (11th)||One every 12.02 plays (1st)|
|YARDAGE/PLAY||4.44 (8th)||3.28 (1st)|
|YARDAGE/GAME||107.8 (16th)||83.6 (3rd)|
|FIRST-DOWN RATE||One every 4.26 plays (8th)||One every 5.04 plays (7th)|
|AVG./KO RETURN||21.78 (23rd)||24.17 (14th)|
|AVG./PUNT RETURN||9.76 (10th)||8.25 (16th)|
|AVG. ALLOWED/KO RET.||20.32 (6th)||22.22 (10th)|
|AVG. ALLOWED/PUNT RET.||6.86 (12th)||8.69 (18th)|
|KO TOUCHBACK PCT.||67.1 (6th)||22.2 (29th)|
|NET PUNTING AVG.||39.49 (22nd)||39.01 (24th)|
|FIELD-GOAL PCT.||85.7 (T-14th)||83.3 (T-19th)|