Numbers matter. Yes, the game is played out on the field — not on paper — but a quick look at the statistical profile of a team can show tendencies, strengths and weaknesses that shine some light on what can be expected when the teams take the field. This series is an examination of how the Broncos can gain an advantage against their opponent from a statistical perspective.
Here are the numbers that matter in this Week 12 matchup against the Steelers.
20.6 percent and 9.1 percent
Ben Roethlisberger has only been pressured on 20.6 percent of his drop backs this season, the best mark in the NFL. That speaks volume about not only the Steelers’ offensive line, but Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to get the ball out quickly and the wide receivers’ ability to get open.
“We talk about the protection of the quarterback being an 11-man job, so it’s all of the above,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday. “We have an accomplished front. Those guys have been together for a number of years. They do a great job, but it’s also a responsibility of the wide receivers to be able to work and work in a timely manner in an effort to keep him upright.”
But the Broncos know a thing or two about getting after the opposing quarterback. They have registered a sack on 9.1 percent of opposing teams’ drop backs, the sixth-best mark in the league. And no other tandem in the NFL has more combined sacks than Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who have 19.0. It will be strength vs. strength when the Denver pass rush meets the Pittsburgh pass protection.
“It’s unbelievable — maybe the best [outside linebacker duo] in the game right now, those two guys,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to block them so we can make some plays, because they are very good.”
The best chance to slow down this Steelers offense starts with shutting down the run. And over the past three weeks, the Broncos have been terrific at doing that to opponents. Denver hasn’t allowed 100 yards on the ground since mid-October, and over the past three weeks, opponents are only averaging 3.1 yards per carry. That’s the second-lowest mark in the league in that span.
“I think it’s a combination of guys doing their job and tackling better,” Head Coach Vance Joseph said. “Obviously scheme helps, and scheme changes week to week, but just getting back to fitting gaps and tackling and [on] first, second down, kind of dictating what we give the offense.”
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh has plenty of weapons for Ben Roethlisberger to throw to, but having him hand the ball off to James Conner has been their key to success. In the Steelers’ two losses, they have averaged 29.5 yards on the ground. Compare that with their seven wins, in which they have averaged 109.4 yards rushing.
Last week, when the struggling Jaguars gave the Steelers trouble, they limited Pittsburgh to 26 yards. Even though the Steelers escaped late with a win, the Broncos could look to follow a similar formula.
The Broncos have found success over the past few weeks against other high-profile running backs, such as David Johnson, Kareem Hunt and Melvin Gordon. If they can find similar success against Conner, it will be a major advantage.
After another impressive showing from Phillip Lindsay last Sunday, the Broncos reclaimed the top spot in the league with an average of 5.2 yards per carry. It was a remarkable performance from an offensive line that has several players in new positions. The Broncos will need to bring that level of effort and execution to Sunday’s contest to improve their chances to pull off the upset.
The Steelers’ overall stats show the team is pretty stout against the run, but they certainly aren’t impenetrable. The Browns rolled up 177 rushing yards in a Week 1 tie, and the Chiefs had 127 the following week to hand Pittsburgh a loss. Last week, the Jaguars had 179 yards against a Steelers defense that was without starting defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt, and it could be without him once again.
That might give Lindsay and Royce Freeman, who combined for three scores against the Chargers, some chances to take advantage.
The Pittsburgh offense is well known for having playmakers at every skill position, and the stats support that claim. There are six players on the Steelers — JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, James Conner, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Ryan Switzer — who have recorded at least 20 catches this year. That’s tied for the league lead with the Colts, Buccaneers and Patriots.
“I just try to find the open guy,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “I don’t look at who I’m throwing it to. Whether it’s concept throw, whether it’s matchups or whatever it is, I’ve got trust, faith and belief in all the guys that they’re going to make plays for me.”
What’s even more impressive is that at least one Steeler from every skill position figures into that total. The wide receivers (Smith-Schuster, Brown and Switzer) lead the way with 148 catches, but Roethlisberger’s ability to incorporate tight ends (McDonald and James) and running backs (Conner) in the pass game makes this an extremely difficult offense to defend. Anyone can be a potential go-to player on any play, and the Steelers take advantage of that: Roethlisberger leads the league in pass attempts. The Broncos will have to come ready to defend all options.