Banged-up Steelers face Peyton, Broncos
The Pittsburgh Steelers were among the few teams to succeed against the Denver Broncos’ top-ranked defense this season.
That probably won’t be so easy this time around.
Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams won’t play while Ben Roethlisberger may at least be limited, and the top-seeded Broncos’ secondary is far healthier as the Steelers visit Denver on Sunday in an AFC divisional-round game.
Pittsburgh (11-6) is the only team to reach 30 points versus Denver and posted the highest yardage total of the season against the Broncos with 377 in a 34-27 victory Dec. 20. Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and Brown finished with 189 receiving – also both season highs for Denver opponents.
“We got lucky the first time,” said Roethlisberger, the only quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Broncos in 2015. “We made plays, they had guys injured, we were at home. It’s not going to be that easy (again).”
Especially without Brown (concussion) and Williams (foot). The Steelers advanced with a stunning late rally in an 18-16 wild-card win at Cincinnati, but the price was high as both Roethlisberger and Brown suffered injuries.
Roethlisberger hurt his shoulder late in the third quarter on a sack by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and Brown took a shoulder to the head from Burfict while trying to make a leaping catch with 22 seconds left – the first of back-to-back Cincinnati penalties that helped set up Chris Boswell’s winning field goal.
Roethlisberger, who returned for Pittsburgh’s final drive, said Tuesday on his radio show that he’s dealing with torn ligaments and a sprain in his right shoulder. He didn’t throw in practice earlier in the week but did on Friday, with coach Mike Tomlin saying Roethlisberger did everything they asked of him.
Though he’s listed as questionable, it seems the Steelers expect him to play.
Williams won’t after missing the playoff opener, leaving Pittsburgh’s third-ranked offense well short on weapons as the club looks to reach the AFC championship game for the first time in five years.
Brown, an All-Pro, torched a Broncos secondary that was without safeties T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart and Omar Bolden for 16 catches and a pair of touchdowns last month while ending Chris Harris Jr.’s 35-game streak without giving up a touchdown. He had seven catches for 119 yards against the Bengals, his highest total in six career playoff games.
“We want those guys to be there,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said of the injured Steelers. “If we didn’t want them to be there, that means I’d want A.B. to be messed up. That’s a good dude, a good family dude. We don’t want him to be messed up.”
Denver (12-4) will have Peyton Manning starting under center for the first time since Week 10, when reports surfaced he had a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot after a dismal start to the season. Manning relieved an inconsistent Brock Osweiler in a 27-20 win over San Diego in the regular-season finale, going 5 of 9 for 69 yards to spark an offense that had scored seven points in the first half.
Manning will have Demaryius Thomas and former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders as targets. The pair combined for 242 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the first matchup with Osweiler throwing to them.
Perhaps more importantly, the Broncos should have a completely healthy secondary. With Ward and Stewart back for the final two weeks of the regular season, the Broncos held the Bengals and Chargers to a combined 393 passing yards.
That group might have a bit more motivation due to a hit from Steelers center Cody Wallace on Denver safety David Bruton Jr. last month. Two plays after breaking his fibula, Bruton was speared by Wallace. The seven-year veteran was later placed on season-ending injured reserve.
“No, it’s not going to be anything as far as cheap or anything,” Stewart said. “We’re going to get them between the lines, between the plays, the whistle. So, I mean, (Wallace is) going to be sore after the game. That’s how I see it, man. He come out on a screen, he’d better not come at (number 26, Stewart’s jersey). Shoot, I’m cutting him.”
The Broncos have won eight of the last 11 meetings with the Steelers in Denver, including a 29-23 overtime victory in a wild-card game Jan. 8, 2012 in which Thomas scored in the extra period on an 80-yard pass from Tim Tebow.