The Denver Broncos know who their opponent for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs is going to be. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the sixth seed in the AFC, but they were able to travel to Cincinnati in Wild Card Weekend and beat the Bengals to advance.
Now, the Steelers travel to the Mile High City to take on the Broncos for the second time this year.
Earlier this season, with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, the Broncos jumped out to a 27-3 lead against the Steelers at Heinz Field. They then surrendered 31 second-half points to lose to the Steelers by a score of 34-27. Osweiler had a great game, throwing three touchdowns and running another in. However, the ground game didn’t do much against the Steelers with only 62 yards gained between their top two backs.
This time around, the Broncos should use the rushing attack to beat the Steelers.
Starter Ronnie Hillman has shown the ability to gash an opponent for big plays and is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball—and from anywhere on the field. Backup C.J. Anderson is a powerful back with enough speed to gash an unsuspecting opponent. He can pick up tough yards, and Anderson is a load to bring down when he builds a head of steam.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak talked about using a running-by-committee approach in 2015.
“I don’t think we had any idea coming out of camp exactly who the guy was going to be," Kubiak said. "They both worked. They both did some good things.”
Kubiak admitted the team didn’t quite know what they had in Hillman a few months ago.
“I think the surprise is that [RB] Ronnie [Hillman] became a three-down player. I think there was concern whether Ronnie could be a three-down player, pass protect and do those things," Kubiak explained. "You knew that [RB] C.J. [Anderson] could, or he had proven that he could. You have to give Ronnie a lot of credit—he’s come a long way.”
Anderson began the season as the starter, but he didn’t quite look like himself. The player who led the NFL in rushing over the final six games of the 2014 season was not who Anderson was at the beginning of 2015.
Kubiak revealed why Anderson was slowed down earlier this season.
“C.J. has been nicked up along the way, but between the two of them, the numbers have been very good, especially when you go back and look at what they looked like after a month into the season,” he said.
The duo does a good job of working together to produce for the team.
“I think that they feed off each other. They know that they’re both, on any given day there’s no telling who’s going to get the most carries or be the difference. They’re handling their business very well,” Kubiak concluded.
Why is the rushing attack the key for the Broncos’ attempt to beat the Steelers? Let’s take a look.
Time of Possession
By running the rock effectively, the Broncos can control the game clock. The last time these two teams played, the Broncos passing attack was moving the ball down the field quickly in the first half. In the second half, the Broncos didn’t have the ability to close out the Steelers. In that contest, the Steelers won the time-of-possession battle with 31:16 of ball control compared to the Broncos' 28:44.
That two-and-a-half minute difference may not seem like much, but it’s absolutely crucial.
If the Broncos were able to better utilize the clock to their advantage, the Steelers may have run out of time to make a miraculous comeback.
Kubiak identified the difference in playoff football versus regular-season football.
“I’ll tell you, the speed picks up for whatever reason," Kubiak said. "Obviously the stakes are higher. Every play is so crucial, but I think the bottom line is, when it’s all said and done, the top teams are there and going at each other.”
Kubiak continued, “You usually know each other pretty well. You normally don’t play people in the playoffs that you haven’t crossed paths with somehow, someway. It takes a lot of effort and focus for a long period of time just to get yourself in position to play in these games, and it makes you appreciate them.”
The Broncos don’t need to go hyperconservative against the Steelers to win. However, they do need to run the ball when they have a lead. It will give their defense time to rest, and it could help keep the Steelers offense cold on the other sideline.
Wear Down the Opposing Defense
The Steelers rank third in the NFL in sacks (48), and they most certainly are going to pin their ears back to get after starting quarterback Peyton Manning. The last time these two teams played, Osweiler was sacked twice and was under duress often.
The Steelers blitzed Osweiler on 26.4 percent of his dropbacks in Week 15, and that pressure got there almost every time. Osweiler felt pressure on exactly 26.4 percent of his dropbacks, and his average time before pass (2.64 seconds) was well above the 2.48 league average that week.
The Broncos need to use their rushing attack as “football kung fu” by running underneath the rushers that come around the outside.
By running the ball up the gut, the Broncos can soften the inside of the Steelers defense and force more defenders to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Anderson ranks fourth in the league with an average of 2.22 yards after contact per rush. Simply put, if the Broncos feed Anderson with a good amount of carries, he can put the lean on an opponent and tire them out.
In addition to grinding down the Steelers, the Broncos have the capability of creating field-flipping plays with the rushing attack. Hillman had 25 explosive plays this year as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. An "explosive play" is considered by most scouts to be a play that goes for 10 or more yards. Hillman’s big-play ability can come through at just the right time to create momentum for the offense.
Going to the zone-blocking system this year required an adjustment from the offensive line and the running backs.
Kubiak saw improvements in the ground game as the season went on.
“I think that they’re growing in the scheme. We have been a little bit of everywhere, offensively—from a shotgun team to a pistol team to an under team and a little bit of everything," he explained. "Throughout the course of the season, they’ve had to adjust.”
Kubiak emphasized, “I think they [Hillman and Anderson] have, but getting the repetitions over and over again, they’re very comfortable right now with where they are heading into the playoffs.”
Hillman ranks 14th-highest in the league with 2.52 yards before contact per rush. Anderson is right behind him with a 2.51 yard-before-contact average. This shows the Broncos duo is tougher for defenders to track down in the open field. The NFL average for 2015 is 2.44 yards before contact per rush.
The Denver Broncos don’t need to play a perfect game against the Steelers to win. Manning and the passing game will be exciting to watch, but the work they do in the trenches could be the difference-maker Sunday.
Kubiak likes the fact that his team has plenty of big-game experience this year.
“I think it helps you, but I think the thing that I’m most excited about is over the course of our season, we’ve had to win games different ways." Kubiak continued, "To show up on Sunday and know that you can get it done in three different phases, whatever type of game you play in—low-scoring game, high-scoring game, overtime game, whatever. We’ve been there all year long and all those various types of football games."
Kubiak admitted, "What’s coming up next? I don’t know, but I know we’re going to have to play well, and that’s our mindset.”
The Broncos have the right mindset as they prepare for their first postseason game. Let's hope they also have the right game plan to beat the Steelers in the divisional round.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database.