With the Broncos divisional game against the Steelers less than a day away, who better to help DenverBroncos.com scout Pittsburgh than one who makes a job of it? Enter: Rob Rossi, columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Rossi has spent the last three days in Denver immersed in Broncos Country. Here are some of this thoughts on the upcoming contest:**
**Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was only a full participant for one practice this week with a hurt shoulder. But, he's known for being one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league. Would it really be all that surprising if he came out slinging Sunday?
"Well, he calls himself the gun slinger, so this fits into the narrative of the hobbled gunslinger coming out to put up a fight. Ben's going to try to play. I wouldn't be surprised if Ben Roethlisberger comes out to play, or if he plays well. But what would surprise me is if given the injury and also given the absence of Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger looks like the Ben Roethlisberger that the Broncos saw in Pittsburgh. Because, as talented as the other Steelers receivers are, the Steelers big advantage whenever they've won this year or even stayed in games this year has been Roethlisberger and Brown are often the two best players on the field. One of them is not going to be there and the other one's got a bad arm and is missing that guy. So, I won't be surprised if Ben plays, I won't be surprised if Ben goes down in sort of a blaze of glory. But, it's tough to see him being able to be Ben as the Steelers have known him and as the Broncos saw."
**You mention Roethlisberger losing Brown as a target. Really how big of a loss is Brown for Pittsburgh's offense?
"Denver's own coach said he might be the MVP of the league. I think you can make a strong case. Antonio Brown had the best receiving year in the league and he missed Roethlisberger for parts of seven games. The Steelers have won without Roethlisberger; they have not had to win without Antonio Brown. He is, in addition to being a dynamic receiver who can turn short gains into big chunks of yardage and make unbelievable catches deep. He is a master at running routes, at finding holes in the zone. Denver's probably got the best secondary in the league and you saw in that first game when Antonio's on, even the best have a hard time with him. He's also their punt returner and in the playoff games, punt returns matter. Special teams matter. This is a huge absence for the Steelers. If you were to tell me on Sunday that Antonio Brown would be back in the game for the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger would be hurt, be able to play, but be limited in the throws he could make — I might have told you I still like the Steelers' chances at an upset. It's hard to like their chances without Antonio Brown."
**While we were all looking forward to a Brown and Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. rematch, which matchups will you be looking for instead come gameday?
"A lot of us in the media are presuming Peyton isn't going to be able to throw the ball deep... Well, if you can't throw the ball deep, you're now talking intermediate and short and the Steelers have very athletic linebackers. The Ryan Shaziers of the Pittsburgh world verses whomever they put him in coverage against. Is he lining up on the tight end? Is he trying to beat Emmanuel Sanders? How do they use Ryan Sazier? To me, that becomes fascinating, because Pittsburgh's going to commit to stop the run. That's what they did to Cincinnati; it's what they pride themselves on. The Steelers are a stop the run first, try to not give up the big plays, in the passing game. They do give up the big plays in the passing game, but those big plays might not be there to be given up. So now it's: "Can they contain the short stuff?" If they can, I could very easily see a game that features two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks being like 13-10. Because these defenses statistically are much more comparable then their finer defensive standings. If you look at turnovers, if you look at sacks, if you look at scoring — Pittsburgh's comparable. They're not on Denver's level but their comparable. I think most likely what we're going to end up seeing is an old fashioned defensive slugfest, and that's fun too! The NFL used to be about that."
**Can the Steelers' run game survive another contest without running back DeAngelo Williams?
The Broncos had one last walkthrough Saturday morning and were joined by some special guests. (All photos by Allie Raymond)
"It's going to have to. I think both teams are going to need to run the ball in this game. I think the team that wins this game will have three things at the end. It will have not committed fewer turnovers, but forced more big splash plays on defense — that's not always a turnover — a sack, those splash plays I think are paramount. I also think the team that is most efficient with its special teams. By that I mean, if you're going to be a team that gives up a lot of yardage on kick off returns or punt returns, how do you adjust? Do you adjust to kicking the ball out of bounds or what? We don't know what the conditions will be. So efficient special teams plays, you've got to be good at both special teams. The return game and the coverage game. But to me in a nutshell, it's going to come down to the team that sticks with the running game."