Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game could come down to injuries

By Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange   |   Updated Jan. 14, 2016 at 12:39 PM
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Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver - TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: Much will depend on the status of three of Pittsburgh's skill position players. QB Ben Roethlisberger is likely to try to play through a sprained throwing shoulder. RB De'Angelo Williams looks doubtful with his foot injury. WR Antonio Brown? His status is likely up in the air until Friday as he goes through the concussion protocol.

All three were at full strength when the Steelers overcame a 17-point deficit to beat the Broncos, 34-27, at home on Dec. 20. Denver was also without Ss T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart as Big Ben sliced and diced the Broncos' self-proclaimed "no-fly zone" for 380 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw a pair of picks, which has been a recurring theme. While Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman combined for 183 yards from scrimmage at Cincinnati last week, both backs lack the singular versatility and experience Williams brings to the backfield - especially with Roethlisberger ailing and facing a refreshed Denver defense.

The other difference of note from last month's meeting? Peyton Manning will be behind center for the Broncos in a much-debated switch from Brock Osweiler, who threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns against the Steelers. He helped build a 27-10 lead, but Denver was also shut out in the second half. Coach Gary Kubiak is gambling that Manning's vast experience pays off against coordinator Keith Butler's 3-4 scheme with varying blitz packages. Osweiler was sacked twice and hit five times by the Steelers and generally was willing to take a sack to avoid a turnover. What Manning lacks in arm strength he certainly makes up for in quick decision making.

The risk is that Manning is playing behind an offensive line that struggles mightily in pass protection at times. Denver's running backs managed just 62 yards on 18 carries, a 3.4-yard average, in the first meeting. If Pittsburgh is able to reprise that type of run defense, Manning will be hard pressed to push the ball vertically with limited arm strength and mobility behind shoddy pass protection.

*Matchup to watch - Steelers ILB Ryan Shazier vs. Broncos offensive line: Shazier is coming off a breakthrough game in which he racked up 13 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles at Cincinnati. Healthy for a change, Shazier's speed is a serious threat to the Broncos, who alternated struggling Michael Schofield and journeyman Tyler Polumbus at right tackle in Week 17. Shazier plays next to LOLB Ryan Moats, who had a quiet night with one tackle and one pass defensed in the regular-season meeting.

*Player spotlight - Broncos LG Max Garcia: Denver is one of the rare teams that rotates starting linemen. Garcia has taken over the left guard job from Evan Mathis, but Mathis will log some snaps when Garcia moves to the right side to spell RG Louis Vasquez. All the maneuvering is only another indication the Broncos have serious issues controlling the trenches. Steelers NT Steve McLendon could play a huge role in negating the ground game and creating long passing downs.

*Fast facts: Roethlisberger is 8-0 in the postseason when he has a passer rating of at least 80.0. ... The Broncos had an NFL-high five regular-season victories this season against playoff teams.


Teammates have acknowledged that Peyton Manning is more "amped up" this week, knowing this might be his final run - at least with the Broncos. The Steelers pose a serious threat, but they're also an opponent with a trio of battered stars coming to town off a physical showdown in Cincinnati. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Manning, but at home and with a rested and talented defense, he comes up with enough to fight another week.

*Our pick: Broncos 30-26.

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