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3 Keys to a Broncos' Victory Over Steelers in Week 5

Here's how the Broncos get to 4-1 this week.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. 

That's some heavyweight wisdom from famed boxer Mike Tyson and boy, did the Denver Broncos eat a knuckle sandwich courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens last week. While Broncos head coach Vic Fangio and Baltimore's John Harbaugh tossed verbal jabs at one another earlier after the game over the trivial ‘knee-gate’ incident at the end of regulation, fans are wondering whether Denver will rebound.

After all, this was Denver’s first loss of the 2021 season and the team is still tied for first place in the AFC West, although the Los Angeles Chargers technically leads the division after beating the Kansa City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders. 

Broncos' QB1 Teddy Bridgewater left Week 4's action in the first half last week due to a concussion and it’s unclear whether he’ll play this Sunday. Drew Lock has been preparing this week as if he’ll get the starting nod, however, I can’t help but feel the Broncos will play Bridgewater. 

As the QB goes, so goes the team, and when the Broncos saw Bridgewater get knocked out of the game, the players seemingly lost morale and confidence in each other. Regardless of who takes the snaps as the starting QB this week, the Broncos have an opportunity to get back on track this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

How does Denver emerge with a win? Let’s review three keys to victory for the Broncos this week. 

Nix the Spread & Get Big Upfront

OC Pat Shurmur abandoned the Broncos; rushing attack in the second half against the Ravens. While the argument can be made that passing was essential due to the team trailing, old habits die hard. 

Somewhere between 11 and 12 different plays in the second half were ran out of 11 personnel (3-WR sets), allowing the Ravens to tee off on both Bridgewater and later Lock.

If the spread offense is overplayed again in Pittsburgh, it’ll make for another long day for the Orange and Blue. Shurmur must utilize a heavier set of offensive personnel that includes one back and two tight ends to establish the running game especially when the interior offensive line that has seen rookie Quinn Meinerz and Netane Muti struggle mightily in pass protection sets. 

It sounds like starting left guard Dalton Risner will start the game on Sunday after returning to practice this week. However, if he returns, there’s the harsh reality that there could still be struggles with Risner who’s not 100% healthy.

Heck, bring in a sixth offensive lineman at times and utilize a goal-line formation on 3rd-&-short scenarios. By establishing the run with players who should be leaned on to block and fight in the trenches, the Broncos can keep the Steelers honest and maybe even utilize a fullback much like they did all of training camp with Andrew Beck.

Denver's first three opponents this season have previously stacked the box to respect the rushing attack. The pay-off was later revealed to be successful play-action passes, which forced defenders to accept the physical nature of slugging it out on the line of scrimmage. 

Running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams are both hovering around a 5 yards-per-carry average. While their respective playing styles and talents are vastly different, each back has proven that he's willing to run between the tackles and doesn’t get rattled by defenders easily.

If Shurmur can establish the run and accept that 3-yard rushes will eventually open up other options, Denver can utilize WRs Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick on the perimeter. By getting an eighth defender in the box, the starting QB can be responsible for dictating the run direction and, at times, even audibles. 

Pre-snap, the safeties should be the quarterback’s priority. If the defensive backs are forced to enter the box, that’s when deep throws and seam routes can be utilized as the defenders should be sucked into the fake run in theory.

I previously mentioned in last week’s keys to victory article that running the ball can camouflage a lot of warts on the interior O-line. That couldn’t be truer as the Steelers defense is comprised of some absolute dogs that include DE T.J. Watt, DL Cameron Heyward, and DE Melvin Ingram. 

That’s right, Broncos Country, you read that correctly, the former Charger, Ingram, has been utilized on the inside of the defensive line and still utilizes a spin move that puts linemen on skates. Then there’s Heyward, who’s made a career for himself by ruining the pocket for opposing QBs, allowing for Watt to clean up sacks on the edge.

If Denver wants to beat the Steelers, it starts on the ground and upfront with the big uglies. That includes TEs Noah Fant and Eric Saubert who will be called on to be physical in the rushing attack. 

While that may not be Fant’s strong suit or the reason he was drafted, the unselfish aspect of his game rings true the last couple years. Sure, both offensive linemen and tight ends will get beat on a given play on Sunday but Shurmur can’t compromise the offensive game plan by spreading the offense out repeatedly. 

If he does, Shurmur could be looking at more injuries to the QB position and might not be able to stop the bleeding in time for a bounce-back win.

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Give Harris a Dose of the Rookie Blues

Steelers RB Najee Harris hasn’t had the same dynamic start to his NFL career as fellow rookie Williams. Williams has rushed nine fewer times than Harris and is averaging almost a half-yard more per carry despite being the second-string RB. 

Despite this, Fangio’s defense must be prepared to contain and corral the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Harris. Pittsburgh drafted Harris with the No.24 overall draft pick to support its 39-year-old signal caller Ben Roethlisberger. 

The two-time Super Bowl Champion is thought to be in the twilight years of his career, has struggled mightily this season, and is currently battling multiple injuries. Big Ben was listed on the practice report this week with a pectoral/hip injury that’s been nagging the six-time Pro Bowler. 

In four games, Roethlisberger has passed for 1,033 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions, but game film reveals a bewildered and out-of-touch QB seemingly trying to do too much.

But the Steelers have already committed to Roethlisberger, and with lackluster backup Mason Rudolph, the team feels more comfortable with the cerebral approach that the starter brings. Behind Rudolph is Dwayne Haskins who’s seemingly in a rehabilitation year and could possibly be viewed as a QB in waiting. Yes, the Steelers offense is a mess.

Enter Big Ben's best friend, which has and will always be the running game. Harris is yet to log a 100-yard rushing game this season, and I can only imagine that’s driving HC Mike Tomlin and OC Matt Canada crazy. Harris has been rushing between 10-16 times per game but has been a consistent target in the passing attack for the Steelers. 

The former Alabama star has been targeted a total of 34 times in four games with 19 of them coming two weeks ago against Cincinnati. Harris has logged a total of 26 receptions for 178 yards, averaging over six yards per catch. 

His versatility in the running and passing game are just two of the many reasons that Harris was drafted as the Steelers currently have deep-threat WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool.

Denver’s defense must maintain its assignments especially in the middle of the field where Big Ben will be looking to check the ball down to Harris. Sure, the aging QB will take some deep shots, but the Steelers offense has been continually punished after committing turnovers and being inefficient on third-down.

I continually hear about the RB position being devalued in the current pass-happy climate of the NFL. But if the Broncos defense doesn’t account for Harris in their game plan, he could beat Fangio in more ways than one.

Unleash Miller 

In four games, Von Miller has accrued 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles, seven of which were for losses, and has delivered seven QB hits. Needless to say, the old Von is back in 2021 with the former Super Bowl 50 MVP proving he can still get to the quarterback at 32 years old. 

Denver’s defensive game plan against Lamar Jackson was so hellbent on containing the edges that Von couldn’t do what he does best and rush the passer. Against Pittsburgh, Miller won’t have to worry about ‘Big Ben’ scrambling for huge yards or even touchdowns. 

Instead, Fangio needs to let Miller feast on the banged-up Roethlisberger, who’s become increasingly immobile, and could even be struggling with his own confidence. Pittsburgh has allowed at least two sacks per game this season and allowed four sacks against the Bengals in the Week 3 matchup for a total of 10 sacks in four games. 

This means that getting to Roethlisberger is a realistic goal as the aging QB has struggled to get rid of the ball quickly and is no longer the young scrambler that could shake off tackles with his raw size and strength.

Enough with dropping No. 58 into the flat for coverage. Surely a defensive back or linebacker could reel in Harris on a checkdown or a Texas route. Miller must get upfield and consistently harass Big Ben, who will likely turn the ball over at some point. Roethlisberger has fumbled the football three times this season and has only recovered one.

Miller was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for September and can undoubtedly get back on pace for a double-digit sack total this Sunday in Pittsburgh. Just as ‘Blitzburgh’ utilizes Watt to raise hell for opposing offenses, Denver must unleash Von’s pass rush. 

If Miller becomes a problem for the Steelers, don’t be surprised to see the O-line slide his way and even double team and chip the dynamic pass rusher. By default, this should ease up some of the protection on the other side, specifically for Malik Reed, who nearly logged a sack on Jackson last Sunday.

It's about time for a Miller strip-sack against an immobile and injured QB. Von should have at least one sack in Pittsburgh in addition to numerous knockdowns and hits. 

Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.

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