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Three Keys to Broncos-Steelers

The season's focus remains narrow, and if the Broncos are going to pull themselves from the morass of a 3-6 start before their Week 10 bye, they have to focus on one game, one play -- and, for each player, one single task.

Distilling the focus to that is the best way to prevent problems from recurring -- problems like third-down defense, which nearly sunk the Broncos last week against the Chargers.

Denver allowed Los Angeles to convert 60 percent of its 15 third-down chances. It was the Broncos' worst percentage allowed in their last 41 games.

The Broncos must remedy this issue quickly, because over the last seven weeks, the Steelers are the league's best team on third downs, converting 57.1 percent of their 77 opportunities. In that same span, Denver's defense ranks 19th in the NFL, allowing successful conversions on 41.5 percent of third downs.

What is the best way to solve the problem?

"Execution. Just sticking to the game plan. Don't wander off and do your own thing," defensive lineman Shelby Harris said. "It just takes 100 percent effort from all guys on the field to make third downs successful. A couple of weeks ago, we were real good on third down. Now we've struggled."

 Given the Steelers' proficiency and the Broncos' record, a quick fix is necessary.

"We've got to flip the script," Harris said, "and get back to what we do."

What are some other keys to the Broncos getting their second consecutive win over a team that currently sits in playoff position?

Prepare to attack and 'plaster'

There will be opportunities for sacks. While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is past the time when he could discombobulate a defense with a scramble, his feet remain nimble in the pocket and while rolling out. Few quarterbacks are more adept at buying time with a sidestep or a lateral shuffle than Roethlisberger, who uses his light feet to extend plays, ensuring defenders have to cover receivers longer than against almost any other quarterback.

"It doesn't affect what you do in terms of what we'll call, but guys have to understand that they're going to have to cover them twice," Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said. "He's going to escape, he's going to move around the pocket, and you can see receivers running around. Initially, we have to do our job and execute the coverage. When he scrambles, we'll have to be able to plaster."

Of course, if the defense can turn its pressure into sacks, the burden on the secondary will drop -- and so do the Steelers' chances of victory. Since Roethlisberger broke into the NFL in 2004, the Steelers are 22-30-1 when opponents sack him at least four times, compared with 134-44 when they get to him three or fewer times -- including 75-13 when he is sacked no more than once.

Getting to Roethlisberger four times is difficult. It has happened just once in the last two seasons -- by Cleveland in Week 1, which needed a full 10 minutes of overtime to post its quartet of sacks in a 21-21 tie. The Steelers have allowed four sacks just three times in the last few seasons; no one has permitted fewer four-sack performances.

"You've just got to keep rushing," Harris said. "He likes to pump-fake; he likes to move. When you tackle him, you've got to tackle his arm. People try to go low on him, and he just throws the ball away or he still gets the ball out.

"So you've just got to make sure that when you tackle him, you tackle his arm so he can't throw it away."

Force Roethlisberger into an errant throw

The Steelers have won 11 out of the last 13 games in which Roethlisberger did not throw an interception, a run that dates back just over two years, to Nov. 20, 2016.

An interception would help the Broncos ensure they don't fall into another bear trap: a negative turnover margin. Since Tomlin became their head coach in 2007, the Steelers have won 89.6 percent of the games in which they win the turnover battle (69-8, including playoffs), according to Only the Patriots have a better record in that span when winning the turnover battle.

Even an equal turnover margin has usually been good enough to ensure success for the Steelers; they've won 81.7 percent of their games under Tomlin when they don't lose in turnover margin (107-24, including playoffs); only the Patriots are better. But Pittsburgh has won just 35 percent of its games with a negative turnover margin under Tomlin.

Keep the game on level terms ...

... and don't give the Steelers a chance to play from ahead. That allows them to control the game on the ground, and considering that the Steelers are 46-5 in the Tomlin era when they run the football on at least 50 percent of the snaps, that plays into how they want to play the type of football for which their franchise has been known since time immemorial.

If the Broncos can control the tempo of the game and run well, they can put themselves in position to win. Pittsburgh is 4-17-1 under Tomlin when the opponent runs at least 35 times, and 11-21 when its foe runs on 50 percent or more of its snaps.

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