The Pittsburgh Steelers issued a bleak final injury report before their divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos. Ben Roethlisberger is injured but expected to play. Antonio Brown is out. So too is top running back DeAngelo Williams.
- The Steelers offense will miss these men vs. Denver, but it is the other men on the injured list who must make a difference.
Will Allen, Robert Golden, James Harrison, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams and Cameron Heyward were all listed as probable. These men will play. And if the Steelers are to defeat the Denver Broncos at Mile High for the first time since 2009, Allen, Golden, Harrison, Shazier, Williams, Heyward and the rest of their defensive brethren must play the game of their lives.
Which Steelers Defense Will Show Up vs. Denver?
When Mike Tomlin let Dick LeBeau go and tabbed Keith Butler as Steelers defensive coordinator, Butler was charged with reviving a unit that at lost its luster. Make no mistake about it. Credit Dick LeBeau fielding competitive defenses during 2011 and 2012 as he fought off the toll Father Time exacted his playmakers.
- But those number one Steelers defense in 2011 and 2012 (in total yards allowed) masked multiple deficiencies.
Those Steelers defenses couldn’t pressure the passer, and suffered from a chronic failure in securing turnovers. The first thing the Butler needed to do was to change that. How did he do? The numbers are interesting as the 2015 Steelers defense:
- Dropped from 18th in yards allowed to 21st
- Improved from 18th to 11th in points scored
- Jumped from 25th to 6th in interceptions
- It also forced 3 more fumbles and recovered 5 more fumbles than the 2014 Steelers defense
Those are impressive improvements numbers, but they too mask inconsistency. There’s no secret black magic behind the 2015 Steelers defense success – they secure turnovers. There’s a common thread to the Steelers 3 worst losses of the season – they could not force a turnover against the Patriots, Chiefs, and Ravens.
- NFL coaches normally focus on the turnover differential, but the Steelers are only 2 ahead on the season.
And true to form, in the Steelers losses to the Bengals and the Seahawks they came out on the wrong side of the turnover differential. It was only in the Monday Night loss to the Ravens that the Steelers won the turnover differential and lost the game. Overall, the Steelers are 11-2 when they simply force a turnover.
So what does all of this mean for the Steelers divisional playoff game against Denver?
Steelers Defense Must Dare Peyton Manning Beat Them
No, Steel Curtain Rising has not suffered a bout of momentary insanity, although readers can be forgiven for thinking so based on the sub headline above. Peyton Manning is a first ballot Hall of Famer and considered by many to be the best quarterback in NFL history. And true greats often have a way of digging deep to find one final turnkey performance.
- But the smart money for the Steelers defense vs. the Broncos will be to dare Peyton Manning beat them.
Seriously. Think it through logically and it makes sense:
Even in his prime, the phenomena of “Regular season Peyton Manning vs. Postseason Playoff Peyton Manning” haunted Manning. And Peyton Manning’s prime is long past. Numbers don’t lie:
- This season, Peyton Manning has thrown 9 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions
- At home Peyton Manning has been worse, throwing 1 touchdown and 8 picks
- Peyton Manning is 0-4 in post season games with a temperature below 40 degrees
They’re forecasting temperatures in the 30’s in Denver for the AFC Divisional Playoff Game.
But while Manning has been injured, the Denver Broncos have revitalized their running game. The Denver rushing offense is only ranked 17th, but it has improved over the later part of the season. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson rushing averages trend up as the season goes on, and they combined for over 200 yards in the Broncos season finale vs. San Diego.
- The 2015 Steelers defense ranked 5th against the run.
On paper, Keith Butler’s game plan against the Broncos is simple: Keep Steve McLendon in the game, use whatever combination of Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats, Stephon Tuitt along with Heyward and Harrison to get in Manning’s face. And it does without saying that the Steelers defenders must finish tackles.
- And yes, Ross Cockrell, William Gay, Michael Mitchell, and Antwon Blake must come down with a few turnovers.
At the beginning of 2015 season, it was said that the Pittsburgh Steelers would go as far as their offense could take them. Going into the Pittsburgh’s playoff game against Denver, the Steelers will depend on Keith Butler’s defense to carry it to victory.