NFL Playoffs: 5 Keys to Denver Broncos Win over the Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite the Denver Broncos' three losses in the final weeks of the season to back in to the playoffs, everything changes once you get there.
It was a complete team effort all year to get where they are. Now, the Broncos need to put together a full 60-minute performance against one of the best teams in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers, to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
1. Broncos Must Use More Creative and Imaginative Play-Calling
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The Denver Broncos have embodied the philosophy of their head coach, John Fox, and have become a conservative, run-first offense that aims to keep the contest close and wait for the right opportunity to steal a win late in the game.
Thus, the Broncos have become a very predictable and unimaginative offense. Opposing defenses have put eight defenders in the box and focused on stopping the Broncos rushing attack, letting their cornerbacks play man-to-man coverage against the Broncos young and somewhat slow receiving corps.
Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has gone with mostly two-wide receiver sets, with a blocking tight end, a fullback and running back. Occasionally, Tim Tebow will line up in a standard shotgun formation, though it is usually with only two receivers or a third slot receiver.
McCoy needs to start using the spread formation more with five receiver sets, or incorporate the tight ends more into the offense with seam patterns or inside slants. The majority of Tebow's passes are low percentage deep routes or sideline routes, and there are very few completions.
If Tebow is given some easier high percentage passes, such as inside passes to Eddie Royal, seam routes to Eric Decker, or Daniel Fells up the middle, it would keep the Steelers defense back on their heels. The running game would be even more effective, and there would be uncertainty about what is coming next.
The past few weeks defenses are waiting for the rush, and the Broncos have failed to get any sort of semblance of a passing attack going at all. As a result, three-and-outs on offense have abounded week after week.
But this is the playoffs. This calls for some new wrinkles that defenses haven’t seen out of Denver this season yet.
2. Broncos Must Win the Turnover Differential
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In the past four games, the Broncos are a negative eight in the turnover differential. Tim Tebow has been the biggest culprit. He has thrown four interceptions since Week 12 against the Chicago Bears and has four fumbles in that same stretch.
Tebow is averaging two turnovers a game and, as witnessed last week, they have come in crucial parts of the field: in the red zone, or on the opponent’s end of the field.
If Tebow and company commits two turnovers next week, this game could be over. I expect a game where neither team scores more than 20 points, and holding onto the football will be the only way for the Broncos to have any chance in the 4th quarter of this one.
Not only do the Broncos have to hold onto the football, they have to be more opportunistic and take the ball away from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Last week, Isaac Redman (Rashard Mendenhall’s replacement) lost two fumbles, and three weeks ago, the banged up Ben Roethlisberger threw a decisive three interceptions, giving the game away to the San Francisco 49ers in a close game.
The margin for error for the Denver Broncos is very slim in this game, and turning the ball over will cost them the chance to advance into the next round of the playoffs.
3. Broncos Must Run the Ball Effectively
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the best defensive teams in the NFL. They have shut down opposing quarterbacks and lead the league in points scored by opposing offense, with a meager 14.2 points per game. The only area they have showed some chinks in the armor has been against opposing team’s rushing: they are giving up around 100 yards per game.
The Denver Broncos, in contrast, have led the league rushing the ball. This will be very important late in the game at the Mile High altitude.
The Broncos need to use the rush more sparingly early on so that the passing offense can get in a rhythm, but that rhythm on offense passing should give way to huge gains on the ground against the Steelers.
Look for huge holes and big gains by Willis McGahee late in this game to put the Broncos in position to steal one from the Steelers.
4. Broncos Must Force Ben Roethlisberger to Beat Them
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The Steelers suffered two huge blows late in the season this year. Last week, the Steelers lost Rashard Mendenhall with a torn ACL in his knee. Also, Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns. This injury kept Roethlisberger out of one game, and it has also led to some poor throws and interceptions.
Against the 49ers, Roethlisberger threw three interceptions. In this week’s press conferences with the Denver Post, Roethlisberger says his ankle is a 5 out of 10 as he is preparing for the game. ESPN.com reported that Roethlisberger says he “had a little setback” in the third quarter of last week’s season finale against the Browns.
The Broncos need to apply constant pressure against Roethlisberger, much like they did against Kyle Orton and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17. Despite the pressure, however, the Broncos only recorded one sack.
The Broncos will have to get more against the hobbled Roethlisberger, and they must force him to throw off his back foot before he wants to, so that there are opportunities to intercept his passes.
5. Broncos Must Convert in the Red Zone
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In a game where a touchdown would have been the difference, the Denver Broncos squandered two red zone trips against the Kansas City Chiefs last week.
In the second quarter, the Broncos drove the ball 66 yards into the red zone when a scrambling Tim Tebow had the ball stripped away, ending their best opportunity of the afternoon.
Tim Tebow has to secure the ball better when he scrambles and needs to be aware of where he is at on the field. Even taking a sack and kicking a field goal at that point in the game would have been a win. With Matt Prater and his stellar leg in the Mile High air, the Broncos would have had a chance later to go ahead.
Later in the game, the Broncos received a gift on a muffed punt return that they recovered inside the Chiefs' red zone. Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy, however, couldn’t come up with a play to gain a single yard, and the Broncos were forced to kick a field goal.
The Broncos have to be able to punch the ball into the end zone against the Steelers. If they cough it up or stall like they did last week, they may not score any points against the Steelers and their stingy defense.