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Three Keys to Broncos-Steelers

PITTSBURGH --Last week, the Broncos lost because of their own mistakes: dropped passes, a muffed punt, a missed assignment and an inability to get any push up front, leading to a non-existent ground game, stalled drives and missed opportunities.

The Raiders had lost four of five games coming into Denver, but were just good enough to capitalize on the Broncos' miscues. Denver still had a chance late, and even preventing one of those mistakes might have been enough to allow the Broncos to escape. They had plenty of wiggle room, but to the consternation of players, coaches and fans, they used it all -- and then some.

If the Broncos continue to gash themselves with self-inflicted wounds Sunday at Heinz Field, this game will not come down to the last minute; it will be decided long before. The Steelers are too powerful, too balanced and have too much momentum on their side, having won four of their last five games and scored at least 30 points in each of them.


Not coincidentally, the return to form came shortly after the return of Ben Roethlisberger to the lineup. A knee injury at St. Louis in Week 3 knocked him out of the next four games, during which the Steelers went 2-2 and averaged 20.5 points per game. He returned in Week 8 against Cincinnati, and although the Steelers lost, he had them back on track, and they've averaged 31.3 points per game since then.

This is a test of strength against strength: a Steelers passing game that has racked up at least 300 yards in four of its last five games against a pass defense that has yet to allow a 300-yard passer.

"I believe wholeheartedly in our secondary, our linebackers and our pass rush," ILB Brandon Marshall said. "I know [Roethlisberger] has been lighting it up, but he hasn't played us yet."

But that's just the beginning of what matters Sunday at Heinz Field. Let's take a look at three keys to the game.

1. Get the ground game going.

This starts with the Broncos' blockers getting a better push off the snap than they did last week, when too often they were pushed back into the paths of Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson, leading to a per-carry average of 1.62 yards that was the Broncos' worst since they gained just 19 yards on 20 carries in an Oct. 3, 2010 win at Tennessee.

"Certainly when you run the ball it makes life a little easier in the red zone and then just execution is the biggest thing," Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison said.

The quickness and change-of-direction ability of C.J. Anderson should help; his absence last Sunday because of an ankle injury was felt. He's expected to play Sunday, and that should help, but without a better push from up front, the Broncos' frustration will continue.

Despite their ground struggles, Broncos were able to control the pace in last week's first half with a controlled passing game that took advantage of the underneath space the Raiders conceded in their cover-two looks.

"It really has to do a lot with how you're getting played. Last week, we played a team that sat there in three-deep and two-deep and really said, 'You know, you're going to have to be patient and dink and dunk and move the ball.' We did that in the first half. That's why [Brock Osweiler] was 22-of-29 [in the first half]," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "It really all depends how you're getting played. People play you in man and come after you, you get a chance to get the ball downfield. Any given day could be a little different."

Pittsburgh might give the Broncos the same opportunities on Sunday, but if they cannot complement it with a strong ground attack, the Steelers will be able to attack Osweiler in the pass rush as the Raiders did last week.

2. Make the Steelers one-dimensional.

So much of the focus is on Roethlisberger and his ability to beat opponents by throwing to any one of his top three receiving targets: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.

But Pittsburgh can -- and will -- run. DeAngelo Williams has replaced the injured Le'Veon Bell with no dropoff. The Steelers have averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry in seven of their 13 games this season and rank fifth in average per carry (4.70 yards).

"They want to be physical. They're going to run the ball on us. They try to run the ball every week," Marshall said.

The Broncos' defense has improved against the run, especially with Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett showing dramatic improvement in their ability to set the edge and not get caught out of position. Their improvement is one reason why the Broncos have held five of their last six opponents below 4.0 yards per carry; in that span, no one in the AFC has a better per-carry rushing defense.

If the Steelers are forced away from the run, the Broncos can attack in the pass rush -- and can do to the Steelers what the Raiders did to them last Sunday.

"We've got to be on point as far as the running game, trying to make them one-dimensional so we just tee off on them with our pass rush," Marshall said.


  1. Win the special-teams battle.**

The third phase has been a big reason why the Broncos have won 10 of 13 games this season, but last week, it contributed to their demise. Emmanuel Sanders' muffed punt led directly to what would become the game-winning points, and Brandon McManus' third missed field-goal attempt in as many weeks prevented the Broncos from tying the game on the subsequent series.

The Steelers present a unique problem because their most dangerous offensive weapon, Antonio Brown, is also their punt returner, and is among the league's best, averaging 10.8 yards per return.

"I've gotten about three hours of sleep this week thinking about Brown," Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis said. "In my opinion, he's the best punt returner in the league."

Minimizing his opportunities could mean opting to have Britton Colquitt punt out of bounds rather than risk giving Brown an additional shot to flip the field.

"I think he hit a 45-yarder out of bounds the other day and people are upset with that," DeCamillis said. "I mean, I'll take [45] and out of bounds every single time. You'd lead the league in net [punting yards] every time. There's no return against you. You got the ball off, so it's obviously not a block.

"I think that you have to be pretty realistic with that. That's a great play against this guy [Brown] this week. I'd love to have that every single time."

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