BRONCOS

The Broncos game plan for beating the Steelers on Sunday in Pittsburgh

Oct 9, 2021, 2:06 PM
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 20: Von Miller (58) of the Denver Broncos lines up Ben Roethlisberger (7)...
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos were knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten teams last week when the Baltimore Ravens knocked them off. Now, they’re back on the road against another AFC North opponent with the Pittsburgh Steelers next on the schedule.

This is a winnable game for the Broncos. It’s a road game. It’s back east. It’s an early start. But it’s against a team that regularly plays down to their competition at home. Add in the Steelers are not the team they used to be, and you can see how the Broncos could get back on the winning track this week.

How will the Broncos attack the Steelers on both sides of the ball? Let’s take a look.

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When the Broncos Run the Ball

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur sounded like Pinocchio this week when he commented that he was committed to the run. The film and the data simply don’t back up his proclamation. Instead of running the ball, the Broncos abandon the rushing attack on a whim and go into a pass-happy mode at the drop of a hat.

This just shouldn’t happen with the way the team wants to win. This shouldn’t happen also because of the talent at the running back position.

Melvin Gordon is playing good football. He’s got his speed back as a runner, but he is criminally underused as a receiver out of the backfield. I feel that Gordon can be used on “Texas” routes and screen passes to attack the Steelers defense where they’re vulnerable. The Steelers are going to blitz early and often, so the Broncos need to counter that with their running backs.

While Gordon can beat them with moves and speed, rookie Javonte Williams can beat them with power. Against the Ravens in Week 4, Williams showed (again) why the team wanted a powerful runner like him. Williams wins collisions and does not go down without a fight. The Steelers want to intimidate the Broncos offense, but Williams would help them be the bully instead.

If Shurmur (and it’s a big IF) does commit to the run, the Broncos can control this game. Who doesn’t want to see more of Gordon and Williams? These two players can handle a larger workload than they’ve been given this year, and in order to win on the road they should be the focal point of what the Broncos do on offense.

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When the Broncos Pass the Ball

Broncos starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is trending in the right direction and should play against the Steelers on Sunday. He was under duress all day against the Ravens, and a big hit before halftime knocked him out of the game. Bridgewater has been in the concussion protocol all week but should start against the Steelers.

This is great news for the Broncos, and they have a chance to win because of Bridgewater. His backup, Drew Lock, came in against the Ravens and looked bad. After the game, some fell all over themselves to create excuses for Lock, but most fans are now seeing what the team sees – Lock is not the answer.

Bridgewater will be down options in the passing game – maybe. Wide receiver Courtland Sutton is going to be a game-time decision due to an ankle injury suffered in practice on Friday. That means we could see Tim Patrick get more targets. Patrick has been the most reliable wide receiver this season and needs a larger target share. He’s big, fast, physical and will not back down from a challenge.

In addition to Patrick, the team needs to continue featuring tight end Noah Fant. After a Week 1 performance that was strong, the team curiously went away from their young star. Last week, that all changed with Fant receiving a season-high 10 targets against the Ravens. Fant creates a mismatch every time he’s on the field, and if the Broncos use “12 personnel” to attack the Steelers he can give them a receiver in a heavier package. Shumur loves “11 personnel” (three wide receiver sets) but if Sutton is out, it just makes more sense to get Fant and Eric Saubert on the field instead.

Outside of Fant and Patrick, the Broncos passing game is going to be limited this week. The Steelers will blitz as much if not more than the Ravens did last week. The Broncos offensive line must protect Bridgewater better than they did in Week 4, and they’ll have to contend with a rowdy crowd and all the noise that comes with it.

***

When the Steelers Run the Ball

Like the Broncos, the Steelers felt the need to get a running back with a premium pick in the 2021 NFL draft. They selected Najee Harris in the first round, and he’s obviously been the primary back for their team this season. However, as the weeks have passed, it seems like the Steelers seem more intent on using him as a runner.

Harris is a huge running back, but he’s not just limited to being a power player. In fact, Harris has a style that belies his size and he’s more of a finesse runner who can use moves than he is a power runner. However, power is still a part of his game.

He is a smooth athlete who can change direction without losing much speed. The Steelers aren’t nuanced with their rushing attack, and there’s not much deception when Harris is on the field. They’ll feature him often, and you must be ready to stop him. Harris is a strong runner, and he is an outstanding receiver out of the backfied. They can use short passes to Harris to complement the ground game as those type of plays can just be long handoffs.

Stopping Harris is going to take a full-team effort. In order to slow down the Broncos pass-rushers, expect a healthy dose of the young runner. Harris has a lot of skill and can hurt the Broncos defense as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.

***

When the Steelers Pass the Ball

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should have retired. Instead of hanging up his cleats after 2020, when it was obvious to anybody that he was done, “Big Ben” decided to come back for one more year – a costly mistake for himself and for the franchise. Roethlisberger looks like a shell of his former self and often struggles as games go on.

His stamina isn’t what it used to be, and his game falls off throughout the contest. He can’t move very well to avoid the rush and will constantly make rushed decisions to get rid of the ball before he gets sacked.

The Steelers have a fine group of wide receivers with different skill sets they can use to attack Denver – if Roethlisberger has time to throw. Diontae Johnson is arguably their best receiver, and his game reminds me of Emmanuel Sanders. JuJu Smith-Schuster used to be good but has become inconsistent as of late. His run-after-the-catch ability will be something the Broncos have to prepare for. After missing Week 4, Chase Claypool (hamstring) should be back in the lineup for the Steelers. Claypool is a huge target with the speed to blow by defenders on the outside. It only takes one play for a guy like Claypool to change the game.

The Broncos do not have to worry about a mobile quarterback like they did last week against Lamar Jackson. Roethlisberger has gone from the toughest quarterback to sack to the easiest quarterback to sack in the NFL.

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The Broncos game plan for beating the Steelers on Sunday in Pittsburgh