ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Von Miller knows what's at stake this weekend in Pittsburgh.
With a win, the Broncos would improve to 4-1 on the season — their best start since 2016 — and put a loss to the Ravens behind them.
The victory would ensure another week in which the Broncos are at least tied atop the AFC West, and it would give the Broncos a three-game road winning streak for the first time since 2015. With seven home games remaining on the schedule, a win in Pittsburgh — and ensuing 3-0 road mark — would keep the Broncos on pace for a playoff appearance.
A loss, though, would drop the Broncos to 3-2 with a matchup with the 3-1 Raiders looming in Week 6 and a short-week road game against the 3-1 Browns in Week 7.
The difference between the two outcomes isn't lost on Miller and the Broncos, who have spent the last two seasons trying to dig themselves out of 0-4 and 0-3 holes, respectively. In 2018, the Broncos started 3-6 and had to rally late to reach the .500 mark with four games to play. The team ultimately lost its final four games of the year, which only underscores the difficulty of climbing out of a hole.
"We all know how serious [getting] this win is for us," Miller said Thursday. "We all know what type of situation that we're in. We need to go in and win these games now instead of waiting to the end of the season, you know, praying and hoping for wins to get in the playoffs. So, all these wins count, and we need as many as we can get to start the season off."
Denver's fast start currently has the Broncos holding the third and final wild-card slot, while a slew of presumed AFC contenders sit two games back. The Steelers find themselves among that cast of 1-3 teams, and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger has taken the brunt of the blame from the national media.
Through four weeks, the six-time Pro Bowler's 6.1 yards per attempt and 36.3 QBR are the lowest of any season in which he's played at least three games — and he's on pace to take the most sacks he's taken in nearly a decade. After being sacked just 13 times in 15 games in 2020, Roethlisberger has already been dragged down 10 times in 2021.
Despite the statistical signs that Roethlisberger hasn't yet played his best football, Miller and the Broncos still see a dangerous opponent.
"I see the same ol' Big Ben," said Miller, who has sacked Roethlisberger four times in his career. "I see the same ol' Big Ben. He still throws the ball down the field, he still throws the ball pretty quick. He still can break a couple tackles and get the ball away. I see the same ol' Big Ben."
Head Coach Vic Fangio also evaluated the problems that Roethlisberger can still present.
"He's still really good," Fangio said Wednesday. "The one thing is that there's a narrative out there that he's gone down, and I don't see that. I've been watching this guy a long time. He's still capable of doing everything he's always done. He throws a great deep ball and has good pocket feel. I don't buy into that narrative at all."
Roethlisberger has demonstrated that ability to push the ball down the field as recently as Week 4, when he connected with receiver Diontae Johnson for a 45-yard touchdown pass that he lofted over the arms of the cornerback in coverage.
And while Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin noted earlier in the week that every player's straight-line speed diminishes with age, Shelby Harris said the Broncos must remain wary of Roethlisberger's ability to move in the pocket.
"You don't actually have to move around that much to be able to evade pressure," Harris said Monday. "It's all about being able to step up, step to the side, and work with the pocket you're given. For years, he's done a great job of that."
Harris said Roethlisberger remains "one hell of a quarterback" — and Miller knows the best way to win against a top signal-caller is by making a game-changing play.
Miller hasn't recorded a forced fumble since midway through the 2018 season, but his approach has not changed as he chases after opposing quarterbacks.
"I really don't even see the quarterback I just go for the ball every single time," Miller said. "No matter how big they are, no matter how strong they are — in this case with Big Ben — I'm going for the ball every time."
If Miller can get to Roethlisberger, it could put the Broncos in position to earn their first win in Pittsburgh since 2006.
Miller and Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt won't share the field together on Sunday, but they'll be engaged in a game within the game. Through four weeks, Watt ranks second in the NFL with five sacks. Miller is just a tick behind Watt and Co., as his 4.5 sacks are tied for the sixth highest total. Myles Garrett and his six sacks also remain within striking distance.
Miller joked that the Broncos' offensive line needs to do its part to "keep these sack numbers close," but it's also clear how much he respects Watt as a player.
"I respect his relentless pursuit to the ball," Miller said. "I remember seeing a couple of plays, I think two years ago, where it wasn't even about pass rush or getting tackles for loss in the run. He would chase the ball 20 yards down the field and cause a fumble. That was something that I wanted to put in my game: relentless pursuit to the ball. ... Everybody's good is good in this league. Anybody's best rush is good enough to be All-Pro. But how good is your bad? How good is [it] when they complete passes? How good do you look on those plays? T.J. Watt, he looks good on all of those plays. He's able to run down the ball, play run. He's the same size as these offensive linemen. ... Him and his brother [J.J. Watt], they have this little power shift move where they show power and they shift to the outside. With their size and their power, guys have to respect it. They're just able to slip past these offensive linemen.
"T.J. Watt is a hell of a player. I was able to spend time with him at the Pro Bowl a couple of times. Huge respect for him and his game."
COMMITMENT TO THE RUN GAME
Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur spoke to the media Thursday for the first time since Sunday's loss against the Ravens, and he explained the Broncos' inability to find success in the passing game inadvertently impacted the team's ability to run the ball.
"I think we were trying," Shurmur said of running the ball four times in the second half. "We didn't hit on some of the passes that we wanted to. That might have opened up the game a little bit. That's always the criticism in a close game. I've said it all along: I believe in running the football. We have running backs who deserve to get their touches, and we'll continue to do that."
Shurmur also noted that a slew of third-and-longs prevented the Broncos from sustaining drives, which lowered the number of opportunities where the Broncos could run the football.
"Typically, if you're staying on the field and converting third downs, you get more runs," Shurmur said. "That just goes without saying. You feel more comfortable doing it. We've been a team that's been able to drive the ball, which means when you're running the ball, you're making yards. It didn't go our way, the other night. I have to be better, we got to be better. We just have to play better than we did against Baltimore and get back on the stick."