PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are hopeful that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be able to play in the AFC divisional round game at the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon. They are not as hopeful that starting running back DeAngelo Williams or receiver Antonio Brown will be able to play.
Roethlisberger (shoulder) and Brown (concussion) were injured in the brutally physical 18-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals last Saturday, and both came on hits from linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has since been fined and suspended for three games next season.
Neither practiced Wednesday when the Steelers began preparations for the Broncos. Brown remains in the NFL concussion protocol and Roethlisberger is rehabilitating a sprained shoulder.
The Steelers found out they had suitable replacements for Williams against the Bengals. They don't have suitable replacements for Roethlisberger or Brown.
Against the Bengals, running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman combined for 183 yards from scrimmage. Toussaint had 58 yards rushing and 60 yards receiving, including a clutch third-down conversion on the winning drive in the final minute. Todman was the team's leading rusher with 60 yards on 11 carries (5.9-yard average).
On a team that has overcome injuries to key players all season, Toussaint and Todman represent coach Mike Tomlin's "next man up" mantra.
"I've said this a lot and I mean it, they're just words," Tomlin said. "The preparation and ultimately the play of the guys is what makes it more than. I think our guys embrace that. I think they are looking forward to making it more than words, and I think that Fitz and Todman are the latest example of that."
It would be much more difficult to replace Brown, who had 136 receptions for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season.
"You can never just plug someone in for A.B. because A.B. is pretty special," Roethlisberger said. "We've had guys step up all year. If A.B. can't go then we have faith and confidence that the next guy will step up and be the best player they can be."
If Brown cannot play the Steelers would have to rely on second-year receiver Martavis Bryant, who was second on the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns despite missing the first five games of the season.
The Steelers beat the Broncos, 34-27, Dec. 20 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh had all of its best players healthy for that game while the Broncos played without quarterback Peyton Manning and their top two safeties.
The Steelers took advantage by throwing for 380 yards against a defensive backfield that boasted before the game that they were a "no-fly zone." Now the Broncos' secondary is healthy and it's the Steelers who are dealing with some major injuries.
"We're going to do everything we can to get it as stable as we can," Roethlisberger said. "We'll see what kind of pain we can deal with on Sunday."
SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting. Broncos lead the series, 18-11-1. The Broncos are the Steelers' most frequent playoff foe. These two teams have met seven previous times in the playoffs, most recently following the 2011 season when the Broncos beat the Steelers, 29-23, in overtime. The Broncos lead the playoff series, 4-3, and are 3-2 in playoff games played in Denver.
GAME PLAN: The Steelers didn't have to run the ball very well to beat Denver last month in Pittsburgh. They ran 17 times for just 23 yards. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards to lead the Steelers in their 17-point comeback victory. But with Roethlisberger nursing an injured throwing shoulder and All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown questionable with a concussion the Steelers are going to want to establish the running game this time around against the Broncos.
The Steelers are likely to be without starting running back DeAngelo Williams, who is still dealing with a right foot injury that forced him to miss the AFC wild card game against the Bengals. They do have some confidence in their backup running backs, though, following the Bengals game. Jordan Todman led the team with 65 yards and Fitzgerald Toussaint had 58 yards rushing and 60 yards receiving.
Defending the Broncos in the playoff game will be different than the regular-season game at Heinz Field because quarterback Peyton Manning is starting instead of Brock Osweiler, who threw three touchdowns and an interception in the first meeting. The Steelers are familiar with Manning, but they haven't played against him since September of 2012. Manning was at the top of his game then. He's not the same player now, and the Steelers will find out if he can make difficult throws down the field.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Steelers offensive line vs. Broncos front seven.
Denver led the NFL with 52 sacks during the regular season, including 11 from outside linebacker Von Miller. They'll be smelling blood with an injured Roethlisberger standing in the pocket. The Steelers only allowed 33 sacks during the regular season, but they gave up four against the Bengals, including the one on the final play of the third quarter that injured Roethlisberger.
--Steelers defensive ends vs. Broncos offensive line: The Broncos don't have a lot of weaknesses, but their offensive line is one of them. They had a hard time protecting Manning and Osweiler this season, giving up 39 sacks. Steelers defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt lead the Steelers' pass rush from the inside and will be tough matchups for the Broncos' interior linemen.