The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers are once again the 6th seed in the playoffs. A team that will not die. A team bent on survival after losing multiple key pieces to their team.
Many critics were quick to put a fork in this team when Roethlisberger was injured. If that injury wasn't enough to put the Steelers down, surely losing Le'Veon Bell would've. But DeAngelo Williams surfaced, before being lost in the final game of the regular season.
Impending doom was looming, yet, somehow, some way, this team feels like they have a chance, appearing to resurrect feelings of a 2005 underdog which went on to hoist the Lombardi trophy. But before we get to talk championships, the Steelers first have to take care of business in Denver.
Without Williams or Antonio Brown, and at best playing with a banged up Ben, Pittsburgh will face a stout defense, the highest-scoring defense in the NFL. While this may seem like an intimidating factor (and it is) the offense is deep with personnel capable of sharing the load, while Pittsburgh shares it's own defensive strengths.
Fitzgerald Toussaint ran onto the NFL scene in last week's game, providing over 100 all-purpose yards in a game of survival against the Cincinnati Bengals. Alternating with Jordon Todman, the two backs provided the Steelers with 123 rushing yards against a considerably tough run defense. Toussaint provided Ben with an outlet to pass to, catching 4 targets for 60 yards, in route to contributing to the Steeler victory.
The team will need to rely upon others to step up, such as Markus Wheaton, who has come on in recent weeks, and Martavis Bryant, who was previously challenged to raise his game a week earlier. Both receivers were targeted over 10 times in their previous game against Denver and will need a similar output on Sunday.
The good news for Pittsburgh, is that they have size and speed aplenty at the position. The next men up is the pleasantly reliable Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has added around 2 dozen catches this season as a fill-in, and rookie Sammie Coates, who could find his first meaningful reps of the season.
Sometimes, it's easier to face the devil you know: Denver had trouble covering the Steelers personnel in the first game, and will have to game plan for the unknown, with little film on Coates, Toussaint and Todman, as well as how those players intertwine with Heyward-Bey, Wheaton and Bryant in sub packages.
Along with the receiving corps, tight ends Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Jesse James may also be leaned upon accordingly. The position has been used as protection recently, but we've seen Miller and James both shine at key times throughout the season. This may be the game where the team needs them to shine their brightest.
Of course, all of this goes without saying a word about Pittsburgh's defense, which I feel is underrated. Coming in as the 3rd best team in takeaways, and 5th against the run, the never-quit attitude of this unit gave the Steelers a fighting chance against the Bengals a week earlier, forcing 3 turnovers.
The Broncos must rely on Peyton Manning in this game. Brock Osweiler, who was pulled from the Broncos last contest with a knee injury, was not able to practice all week. Therefore, Manning might be the only option available for Denver.
Depending on how you look at it, that could be a good or bad thing, as we do not know which Peyton Manning might show up. The Hall of Famer Manning could spell trouble for the Steelers, but Peyton has not been that player this season, throwing 17 interceptions to 9 touchdowns in 10 games. Manning also does not have a great playoff track record, often called a "choke artist," for lack of better terms.
Even with Manning's relief providing Denver a win against San Diego, Peyton only threw 9 passes in that final game, completing 5 (or 55.56%.) which is not the blueprint to beating the Steelers. Denver needs to pass the ball, something Osweiler looked Manning-esque in doing for one half against Pittsburgh. However, Brock's 44 attempts weren't enough for a "W" back in December, which begs the question if Manning could throw the same volume and get a different result.
Relying on the running game may prove futile against Pittsburgh's run defense, while the Broncos offensive line could have trouble protecting Manning as they did Osweiler against the Chargers, who forced the Broncos to turn the ball over 5 times. It's up to the Steelers to win the turnover game by forcing them, and limiting their own. If they do so, as they did with the Bengals, the game could take an unexpected turn for the black and gold.
Overall, unless there's some hidden information, adrenaline or performance enhancing drugs that would indicate otherwise, I believe both quarterbacks could struggle, with this becoming a game which will rely upon defense and field position. Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry will need the games of their lives once again, to aide the other Steeler units, while special teams must be keen on preventing any returns, as the other two phases of this game could determine the victor.