The Battle of the Thirties

Pittsburgh’s offense has topped 30 five straight weeks. Denver’s defense has not allowed it all season. Assessing the classic irresistible force vs. immovable object battle, plus more in a playoff impactful Week 15 slate
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Aqib Talib didn’t even have to hear the full question to know what was coming.

Over the past five games, the Steelers have scored …

“Uh-huh,” Talib said.

To an opposing cornerback, this statistic needed no introduction: The Steelers have scored 30 or more points each Sunday since Nov. 8, against Oakland, Cleveland, Seattle, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The question: Why can’t defenses stop them?

“The quarterback’s been doing what he does, shaking people off and extending plays,” Talib said on the phone Wednesday afternoon from Broncos HQ in Englewood, Colo. “And their receivers are doing what they do—running by people. They’re flat-out running by people. They run the short routes, and convert them to long routes when Ben (Roethlisberger) starts moving. They’re getting all over the field.”

This is Talib’s job this week, as well as the rest of the Denver secondary: Don’t let the Steelers receivers run by you.

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There’s no better game on the slate this weekend than Broncos at Steelers, a potential AFC playoff preview, 4:25 p.m. ET at Heinz Field. And there’s no better matchup than the unstoppable force (the Steelers white-hot offense) vs. the immovable object (the Broncos No.1 pass defense).

The Steelers have been producing ghoulish results for opponents lately. During the past five games, in which they’ve gone 4-1, they’ve averaged a whopping 390.2 passing yards per week. They are maximizing what is a dangerously perfect storm: Ben Roethlisberger, a bear-sized quarterback who is famous for bouncing off defenders and extending plays until throwing windows open downfield, paired with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, perhaps the fastest receiving trio in the NFL.

“We played some teams with maybe two pretty good guys and one decent guy, or something like that,” Talib says. “But the Steelers have three good guys; three legit, good receivers. They’re the deepest that we have played so far this year.”

Fortunately for the Broncos, they have three good guys to match against the Steelers receivers. Some NFL teams would be lucky to have one starting cornerback as good as either Talib or Chris Harris Jr., and No. 3 cornerback Bradley Roby could be a starter elsewhere.

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The Broncos have gone with one of two strategies this season in pass defense: 1) Playing sides, with Talib at left corner and Harris at right (in nickel, Harris slides inside with Roby on the right); or 2) Playing size, with Talib on the big receiver and Harris taking the smaller one. Talib was coy about the Broncos’ plan this week—obviously—but the latter strategy would make sense. Talib, a physical corner, would cover the 6-foot-4 Bryant; Harris would use his short-area quickness to guard Brown; and Roby would take Wheaton.

Brown, who is second in the league with 100 catches this year, and 483 yards after catch, will draw double coverage from the Broncos—but not all the time. “You double him sometimes; you single him sometimes,” Talib says. “You switch it up on him. That’s the only thing you really can do when you get guys like Antonio Brown, and T.Y. Hilton, and Calvin Johnson. They’re so dangerous, you just play different things to try to confuse the quarterback and confuse him. And hope the rush matches up with the coverage and messes up their timing.” Wheaton and Bryant, the deep threats, average 18.4 and 17.7 yards per catch, respectively, ranking second and fourth in the league among receivers with 30 or more catches.

Talib, measuring 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, has fared well against big, physical receivers. In a Week 3 win against Detroit, he held Calvin Johnson to 77 receiving yards and no touchdowns, which generally can be considered a win against Megatron. Not all big, fast guys are used the same way in their offense, so how Talib plays is based on what kind of routes they run. For example, Talib’s strategy against Johnson was based less on his size and more the fact that he runs the entire route tree. If he sees a lot of Bryant on Sunday, it’s the receiver’s down-the-field speed for which he’ll have to be able to account.

Getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger could take the pressure off the Broncos secondary on Sunday.

Getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger could take the pressure off the Broncos secondary on Sunday.

One thing is certain: The Broncos’ No. 1-ranked defense is going to keep doing what it has been doing, and that’s being confident that its players will outplay the opposition. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips deploys his guys in man coverage, undeterred by the competition, a fearlessness rewarded by holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 passing yards and handing Tom Brady his first defeat of the season. “Don’t nothing get much more dangerous than Tom Brady, you know,” Talib says, so you can expect that approach to continue in Pittsburgh.

“We’re gonna do what we do, and they know what we’re gonna do,” Talib says. “What’s our record now, 10-3? We didn’t play 13 games this year only to go to Pittsburgh and change our whole scheme. They know we’re going to be in man. I guess we’ll find out if you can or you can’t (do it).”

Part of the reason that approach has worked so well for Denver is having two anchors on the outside, Talib and Harris, with a combined 13 seasons of experience in the NFL. “A lot of teams I have been a part of,” Talib says, “the corners know the coverage that is called but they don’t really understand what they are trying to do, understand where their help is and things like that. We do.” But as good as they’ve been, they don’t have much margin for error this week.

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Brock Osweiler is walking into one of the toughest road venues in the NFL for his fifth start, having put up point totals in the teens three of the past four weeks. The Broncos defense pitched a first-half shutout last week against Oakland, and surrendered only 135 passing yards with no catches by phenom Amari Cooper, but the offense only managed four field goals in the 15-12 defeat.

The Broncos, who have not given up 30 points yet in a game this year, can’t afford to let the Steelers’ five-game trend continue if they want to keep up the chase for a first-round postseason bye, or even home-field advantage.

“Not to bring up last week, but the defense had a great week and we didn’t win that game, because other parts, offense or the special teams, didn’t match up,” Talib says. “It won’t just be on the defense, but we will definitely have to do our part in containing this offense. This will play a major part in our seeding in the playoffs, in where we have to play this postseason. These games get more important as you go.”

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Aaron Donald (99) and the Rams bottled up the Bucs offense for most of Thursday’s game.

Aaron Donald (99) and the Rams bottled up the Bucs offense for most of Thursday’s game.

About Last Night…

Rams 31, Buccaneers 23

Neither of these teams will make the playoffs, so this was my biggest takeaway: The fieriness of Jameis Winston. You’ve heard teammates talk all season about how he’s naturally embraced the role of a leader, but it was front and center in front of a national audience Thursday night. The footage NFL Network showed before the game, with Winston at the center of a huddle of teammates, pounding his chest and screaming, “I believe in us!” was surprising to see from a rookie. Even more surprising was him getting in the face of the special-teams unit after it gave up a 102-yard kickoff return. People will have mixed opinions, I’m sure, but he rallied the team back from a 22-point deficit and led three scoring drives in the fourth quarter to pull within a touchdown—so his team can clearly use that brand of fieriness. He just has to be wary of getting too wound up, and not trying to do so much that he ends up making mistakes.

My other takeaway: The Rams’ Aaron Donald is as disruptive as any other defensive tackle in the league. The Bucs didn’t score a touchdown until the drive when he came off the field, I believe. He wouldn’t last until the 13th pick in a redraft. But it’s hard to win defensive player of the year on the NFL’s 19th-ranked defense.

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The Most (Terrible) Time Of The Year

Christmas and the playoffs are coming. And so is Black Monday, which means the rumors about which coaches and GMs could be out are underway. There’s interesting perspective on this time of year from former Falcons coach Mike Smith, who co-wrote a book, “You Win in the Locker Room First,” with author Jon Gordon. The focus of the book is lessons on leadership, whether in sports or in business, many of which Smith learned from the way things ended in Atlanta last December.

Two years after his team was 10 yards away from winning the NFC Championship Game, Smith was fired by the Falcons, which he partly attributes to letting the team get so obsessed with getting to the Super Bowl that the pressure fractured the culture he’d previously established. “You’re so close that you focus on, what do I have to do to get back there and win next year, instead of going back through the process you go through every single year when you are building your team,” Smith said on a recent trip to Manhattan. “We all bought in to the idea that we were one play away from going to the Super Bowl. And really, we weren’t one play away, we were 380 days, or whatever it was, away from an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl. We lost focus on the process.”

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With teams’ and coaches’ futures at a crossroads, it’s honest insight into the stakes of this time of year. Smith also writes about the impact on his team of anonymous rumors that he could be fired, attributed to sources in the organization, during the final weeks last season.

“I do believe it affected our team and our organization,” Smith says. “One of the things that I believe, without a doubt, I made a mistake (with) was not addressing those issues. I think it is important that everyone in the organization is always pulling the rope together and when you start seeing it being sabotaged from the inside, you’ve got to address it, because if you don’t, you’re just going to let that grow. And when it grows, it multiples very, very fast. Negativity multiplies so much faster than positivity. You see how long it may take to build up a program, but you can tear it down just like that.”

After losing the winner-goes-to-the-playoffs Week 17 game against the Panthers, Smith was indeed out. For the first time in 33 years, he’s spent a football season not coaching. He used the time away to write this book, which he said was “therapeutic,” and has been a diligent statkeeper for his teenage daughter’s lacrosse team. Once the hiring cycle for head coaches ended after last season, he said he made a decision to be “voluntarily unemployed.” So, with another hiring cycle coming up, would he want to coach again?

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“If the right opportunity presents itself, and I fit the skillset that someone is looking for, I would definitely do it again,” says Smith, who was fired with one year remaining on his contract. “Of course ideally, you want another opportunity to lead a team (as a head coach). But when you have been a coach for as long as I have, coaching is in your blood and everyone wants to get an opportunity to work at the highest level. It's my goal again to do that again, and I know that the next opportunity I get, I am going to be so much better than the first time around.”

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Player You Need To Know This Week

Dee Ford, Chiefs outside linebacker.

If you’d forgotten about the Chiefs’ 2014 first-round pick, there’s good reason: He’s been playing behind Pro Bowlers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. But with Houston out the past two weeks with a hyperextended knee, Ford has burst onto the scene. He had three sacks in the second half of last week’s win against San Diego, and a pass break-up on Philip Rivers’ final throw into the end zone, preventing the Chargers from tying the game. Houston’s timetable for return is uncertain, and for the Chiefs to continue their surge toward the postseason, they’ll need Ford to keep up this kind of production.

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Stat of the Week

This is an eye-opening statistic shared by NFL Network’s Kim Jones: Panthers cornerback Josh Norman has allowed just 89 total yards to DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones this season. That’s insane. This week, Norman will face the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr., who has six straight 100-yard games. “It looks very edible,” Norman told reporters in Charlotte this week of the matchup. Not sure what that means, but anyway, two of the game’s brightest stars will have the chance to eat, excuse me, best each other. One thing to watch: Giants coach Tom Coughlin at his Wednesday press conference pointed out that Norman doesn’t always follow the top receiver into the slot, so sliding Beckham inside could be something the Giants do more of this week.

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Quote of the Week

"They can't eat you. They can fire you, but they can't eat you."

—Chuck Pagano, Colts coach and cancer survivor, putting NFL job security into perspective.

Apparently ingestion is the analogy du jour for NFL soundbites.

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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching This Weekend

1. Bengals vs. 49ers might be the biggest game of the year for Cincinnati, as bizarre as that sounds. The Bengals have a two-game lead over the Steelers in the AFC North with three games to play. They’re at Denver next week, a game that would be tough to win even with Andy Dalton, so they have to find a way for AJ McCarron to beat San Francisco in his first NFL start.

2. Russell Wilson responding to Mike Pettine’s assessment that he’s not a top-tier quarterback. Not through the media; on the field. Pettine is known for his brutal honesty—blunt-force trauma is what Rex Ryan used to call it when they worked together—but he may very well regret poking the bear. A bear that, over the past four games, is completing more than 75 percent of his passes and has thrown 16 touchdowns with no interceptions. He’s done that without Marshawn Lynch, and also lost tight end Jimmy Graham three weeks ago, so it’s an odd time to call Wilson a player who can’t transcend his supporting cast, as Pettine did.

3. Do people care that this could be the last game in San Diego? Philip Rivers has played his entire 12-year career there, so he probably does. But with a 3-10 team, a run-down stadium and the city’s inability to offer a viable plan for a replacement venue, how much nostalgia will there really be Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium?

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4. How will Khalil Mack follow up his five-sack performance last week? Only three players since 1982, when sacks were first recorded as an official statistic, have amassed more than 10 sacks during a four-game stretch in a single season: Aldon Smith (twice in 2012), Richard Dent (1984) and Michael Strahan (2001). Mack has nine sacks over the past three games. The Raiders host the Packers, which have allowed 31 sacks this season (14th in the NFL).

5. The DeSean-LeSean reunion in Washington. Can only imagine the two Chip Kelly castoffs have much to catch up on.

6. Bruce Arians having the chance to show the Eagles what they’re missing. Philadelphia was one of four teams—along with the Bears, Browns and Chargers—that snubbed Arians in 2013. If you think that doesn’t motivate coaches, think again. They hold onto the list of teams that snubbed them just like players passed over in the draft. As Julia Roberts’ character, Vivian Ward, says in Pretty Woman after being turned away by the snooty Rodeo Drive sales attendants: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

7. Jets RB Chris Ivory could cross the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career. The six-year veteran is 86 yards away heading into Saturday night’s game back in his home state, against a Cowboys run defense that last week gave up 195 yards and two touchdowns to Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Good production in a contract year for Ivory, who signed a three-year deal with the Jets after they traded for him in 2013. Anthony Lynn, then the Jets running backs coach, was one of the driving forces behind that trade, targeting Ivory to be a powerful addition to the team’s ground game. Lynn is now coaching with the division-rival Bills, but the Jets are still reaping the benefits of that decision.

8. Matt Hasselbeck/Charlie Whitehurst vs. T.J. Yates/the Wildcat for the division lead. Nothing captures the 2015 AFC South race better than that.

9. Brandon Bolden to rush for 100-plus yards. That would be so Patriots, right? The running back with 110 rushing yards all season breaks into triple digits filling in for the injured starter. Entirely possible against the Titans.

10. Prediction: If Julio Jones doesn’t get in the end zone for the sixth straight week, the Falcons will lose their seventh straight game. It’s almost unthinkable that a player could lead the NFL in catches and receiving yards, but hasn’t scored a TD since Nov. 1. What it speaks to is the lack of other people for the opposing defense to worry about, and that’s something the Falcons will have to fix in the offseason—whoever the GM is at that time.

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