ENGLEWOOD — For the Steelers, the sense of urgency remains real, this game viewed as a must-win.
For the Broncos, the sense of redemption remains tangible, Sunday viewed as an opportunity to prove the ugly loss to the Ravens was a fluke. Both teams enter with quarterback questions, though the Broncos felt better Friday about their situation.
Teddy Bridgewater cleared the concussion protocol, including the exam from the independent neurologist, according to an NFL source. The Broncos medical staff will continue to monitor Bridgewater, but barring any surprises or setbacks he will travel Saturday night — the team is scheduled to arrive around 8 p.m. after holding a walkthrough and meetings in Denver because of conference hotel room shortages in Pittsburgh due to weddings — and start Sunday.
Bridgewater struggled in the loss to the Ravens, but has helped the Broncos to a 3-1 start with a 72.1 completion percentage — fifth in the NFL — and zero turnovers. Saturday, Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was fined $11,457 for his hit that left Bridgewater concussed. There was no fine on safety Chuck Clark and defensive back Tavon Young for the hit that injured Spencer.
Bridgewater recovered well, but might be equipped with a compromised receiving corps.
Former Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton turned his ankle at Friday's practice and is listed as questionable on the injury report. The Broncos are already without Jerry Jeudy (likely will miss three more games, counting Pittsburgh) and K.J. Hamler (out for the year with a torn left ACL). Tyrie Cleveland was elevated from the practice squad to provide depth with Sutton and Spencer (chest) banged up.
Even with Bridgewater set to return, the Broncos need an adjustment. Midway through the third quarter of last Sunday's game, the sobering reality became obvious. The Broncos cannot win without balance.
The point was driven home as they ran the ball four times — four times — in the second half of the loss. The panic reflex returned. Trail, go to three-wide sets, and sling it around the yard, an against-the-grain philosophy given the injuries to the offensive line and a backup quarterback (Drew Lock) looking out of sync.
It doesn't mean September should be forgotten. The Broncos won three games, including two on the road, against bad teams by double digits. The formula was simple: protect the ball, gorge minutes off the clock like Pac Man does blue dots, and produce takeaways.
Against a spiraling Steelers team, that template can be followed, However, winning at Heinz Field against a desperate franchise in a last-stand game remains a slippery proposition. Having Bridgewater back helps, but he needs assistance as well.
So what are the Denver7 keys to a Broncos upset? Glad you asked:
Run The (Expletive) Ball
The Broncos lost a game, lost their way and lost their minds with the play-calling last week. They rushed for 106 yards, but abandoned the attack in the second half despite overall success from Melvin Gordon (9 carries, 56 yards) and Javonte Williams (7 carries, 48 yards). The Broncos rank 11th in rushing and the Steelers counter with the 11th best rush defense. The Broncos must commit to the ground game, if for no other reason, to create play action passes that slow Pittsburgh's relentless rush led by T.J. Watt.
Stop the Run
The Steelers treat the ground game like an unnecessary accessory on an oufit. They like it, but can live without it. The Steelers boast 66 rush attempts, ranking dead last. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada planned to make life easier for shrinking Big Ben Roethlisberger. Instead, the team continues to pass relentlessly even with first round running back Najee Harris in the fold. The former Alabama star can leap over defenders and drive them into ground with stiff arms, but too often he absorbs hit as he takes handoffs. The Broncos must continue this trend, making the Steelers one dimensional courtesy of gritty performances from Mike Purcell, Dre'Mont Jones and Shelby Harris.
Tackle in space
Harris represents something different. They don't run him enough because Roethlisberger uses him as a life raft, tossing the ball his way with the first sign of big waves. Harris has 26 catches in four games. However, he only boasts 178 yards. The Broncos know he's going to get the ball on checkdowns. They have to tackle him well in space. No excuses. Keep Pittsburgh behind the sticks, forcing Big Ben to pass on third down.
Ready, set action
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur admitted he "has to be better." He's right. The onus is on him to call a better game, and for coach Vic Fangio to put his fingerprints on the attack if it veers off course. No shame in winning ugly. And staying on the ground will set up play action. I would go in with a goal of 35 rushing attempts. Bridgewater is strong in play action, and it also reduces the possibility he will get hit and hurt again. The Ravens sacked him twice — once knocking off his helmet, the second leaving him concussed — and hit him five times. The Broncos are fortunate to have Bridgewater available this week. He might not finish this game if they don't protect him with the scheme. Also, if Sutton cannot go and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam ruled out and possibly landing on the short-term IR with a hamstring injury, the Broncos should lean on Williams and Gordon in the passing game along with Noah Fant.
In the middle of everything
For the Broncos to rebound, they need better offensive line play. Nearly every offensive lineman allowed a sack against the Ravens. The bounce backs need to start with left tackle Garett Bolles. Second-team All-Pro last season, he has allowed three sacks in four games. Having left guard Dalton Risner (foot) return will help. Risner and Graham Glasgow (knee) are set to play. Having veterans on the road a big deal? Yep, it should alleviate pressure up the middle in a loud environment. The Steelers feature similar concepts to the Ravens. They will walk up to the line of scrimmage and bring rushers from all angles. It's up to the offensive line to step up.
Pressure Big Ben
Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times. There are statues that blush at his lack of mobility. Von Miller has notched at least a half sack in every game and ranks sixth in the league with 4.5. He drools over facing traditional dropback QBs who hold onto the ball. The Broncos should deliver four team sacks and two by Von. Again, sometimes road wins come down to the best players making plays. They need Von to create pressure to spawn a takeaway by Justin Simmons or Kyle Fuller.
The Broncos have suffered a special teams mistake in three straight weeks — a kickoff return for a touchdown, a partially blocked punt and a long punt return that set up a field goal. Ray-Ray McCloud averages 10.8 yards on punt returns. He is dangerous. If the Broncos activate running back Mike Boone, it should help in coverage. Diontae Spencer (chest injury) fielded all punts this week, so he is good to go. The Steelers present a challenge in every facet of special teams. They are overly aggressive in their attempts to block kicks, even if it means drawing penalties. If this game comes down to a field goal, Brandon McManus is money. Against my better judgment given the Steelers' last stand desperation, I see a field goal winning it.
Troy's Prediction: Broncos 19, Steelers 17