Broncos-Steelers pits receivers, defensive backs

Posted at 1:07 PM, Dec 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-19 15:07:25-05

The Denver-Pittsburgh matchup is the only NFL game this weekend pitting two winning teams. It also features the best receiving trio in football facing the league's top secondary, dubbed "The No-Fly Zone."

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton vs. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby.

"It's the best versus the best," Harris said.

A wide-open offense and a shut-down defense, what more could fans ask for?

Ben Roethlisberger's trio of big-time receivers represents an embarrassment of riches even by today's NFL standard where aerial fireworks light up scoreboards every weekend. With three weeks left in the season, quarterbacks have posted 300-yard passing performances a record 109 times.

Big Ben has six of those, including three in the last month.

"I know he's been lighting it up," Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said Thursday. "But he hasn't played us yet."

Led by their stout secondary and premier pass rush, the Broncos are the only team in the league that hasn't allowed a 300-yard game or given up 30 points.

"I don't see them scoring 30 points on this defense," Denver linebacker Shaq Barrett said. "No way."

Talib and Harris bottled up Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, respectively, last week. Crabtree had just four catches for 19 yards and Cooper, who leads all rookies with 920 yards receiving, didn't catch any of the eight passes thrown his way.

Still, injuries at safety — with T.J. Ward, David Bruton Jr. and Omar Bolden all sidelined — led to a 15-12 loss to Oakland when newcomer Shiloh Keo gave up the game-winning touchdown pass to a tight end, snatching away home-field advantage that Denver (10-3) held in the AFC playoff race.

There's hope that all three safeties could return Sunday against the Steelers (8-5), who have topped 30 points in four consecutive games behind a now-healthy Roethlisberger, who's averaging an NFL-best 332 passing yards a game.

Asked for his impressions of Denver's defense, which allowed just 126 yards last week, Roethlisberger said simply, "Wow!"

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was similarly impressed.

"They have a great combination of rush and coverage," Tomlin said. "When you have that, you have an opportunity to have a great defense. They need no endorsement from me. They're No. 1 in just about every category: yards, points, passing. They're third on third-down conversions. They have great balance. They have guys playing at a high level at every position."

So do the Steelers.

Pittsburgh's trio has 170 catches for 2,658 yards and 16 touchdowns. Tight end Heath Miller chips in 49 receptions for 456 yards and a touchdown and DeAngelo Williams has eight rushing touchdowns and 27 catches.

"The thing about this team is they're balanced," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "They've got three guys that can really get down the field and make big plays. It's not about one player. Then the tight end is back. Heath is back and making a lot of plays on third down. They're throwing it all over the place.

"I think Ben may be the best deep ball thrower I've ever seen in this league in my years as a coach. They're getting it down the field."

Especially to Brown, who is second in the NFL with 1,397 yards on 100 catches, seven of which have led to touchdown celebrations.

"I think he's the best in the game," Roethlisberger said. "When he first got here you saw something special, but I don't know if even he saw this."

So, Roby said, may the best trio win.

"They have three main guys that they use at the receiver position and we have three guys that are great at the corner position," Roby said. "So, it will be fun."

Notes: DeMarcus Ware (back), who spent much of the last month rehabbing with Peyton Manning (foot), said it was nice to see No. 18 back on the field this week at practice: "It felt really good because sometimes when you're in that trainer's room it gets monotonous, it's almost like you're in the jail. Everything is closed off and you look out that window and you see other guys practicing and you want to get out there and help the team. But you always want to do what you have to do to help yourself." ... DE Malik Jackson missed practice because of the birth of his child. A couple of weeks ago, LB Corey Nelson and WR Cory Latimer were similarly absent. "We have a lot of Thursday babies," Kubiak cracked. "Guys don't know how to have babies on Tuesdays" when players have the day off.


AP NFL website: and


Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: