5 Biggest Takeaways from Denver Broncos' Divisional-Round Win over the Steelers
As the first-overall seed in the AFC, the Denver Broncos know the road to the Super Bowl goes through the Mile High City. They took another step closer to their goal Sunday with a 23-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round.
Peyton Manning started the game at quarterback for the Broncos after missing six weeks during the regular season with a foot injury. Even though Manning was the starter, the Broncos utilized their rushing attack and world-class defense to secure the win.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak is proud of how his team persevered, not only in this game but throughout the season.
“I’m very proud of our organization and our team, but what you just said is exactly what we’ve been about all year," he said. "There hasn’t been one way that we’ve won. We’ve kind of won all kinds of different ways.”
Kubiak explained, “ We’ve had a lot of different players contribute to our success when we’ve been successful. I told them it would take them all today. It sure did. It will continue to take all of us as we move forward.”
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Broncos' win over the Steelers.
Offense Comes out Firing with Mixed Results
With Manning back as the starter, it’s no surprise the Broncos came out firing with the passing game to begin this contest. Their first two plays of the game were passing plays, one from under center and one from the shotgun formation. In the first drive, three of their four plays were passing plays, but the team failed to get into the end zone. Instead, they opted for a 28-yard field goal to take an early lead.
At the end of the day, Manning finished with 222 yards on 21-of-37 passing attempts. It wasn’t a “wow” performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a good day compared to some of the turnover-laden starts Manning has had in 2015. In fact, Manning did not turn the ball over once Sunday. This was the first time as a starter this season that Manning did not throw an interception.
Even with the struggles of the passing game, Manning was satisfied after beating a quality opponent.
“It’s very satisfying to win, to beat the Steelers in a playoff game," Manning said. "Those guys over there are battle-tested and they’ve been in a lot of big games. It was really the kind of game we thought it was going to be tonight. It’s always satisfying to get a win.”
The Broncos weren’t at their best throwing the football, yet they still won. Against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, they will have to play better in that department.
Special Teams Makes Early Plays
Cornerback Omar Bolden made a big splash against the Steelers—but not on defense. Before going down with a knee injury, Bolden’s best play of the day came on his first crack as a punt returner. He cradled the ball out of the air, then returned it 42 yards to set the Broncos up in Steelers' territory. The team wasn’t able to move the ball much afterward, but their great field position did help lead to a 28-yard field goal.
In addition to the return unit, kicker Brandon McManus had a great day too. McManus tied an NFL postseason record with five field goals made (28, 41, 51, 41, 45) against the Steelers. He became just the seventh player to make all five field goals attempted in a playoff contest.
It’s amazing to consider what McManus did because of the howling winds at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday. With the wind swirling and gusting, McManus was perfect.
After the game, McManus talked about kicking in windy conditions.
“I had to, based off the wind, I think I hit the ball pretty well. I have a strong leg, so I’m not going to ever aim outside the uprights, but with the wind, you might be one yard inside each upright," McManus explained. "Sometimes you’re kicking with the wind, sometimes you’re kicking into it. Certain crosswinds makes it difficult sometimes, especially from certain yardage.”
It takes all three phases (offense, defense, special teams) to win in the postseason. On Sunday, the Broncos were able to get quality play from all three units.
Bradley Roby's Forced Fumble Sparks the Team
There had been no turnovers by either team in the game until cornerback Bradley Roby forced Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to fumble in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had the lead and were driving. It looked as though they were bound to get another score to build on their lead when Roby punched the ball out of Toussaint’s grasp.
Roby was overjoyed after the game.
“It was a great feeling. We were all stressing that we needed a turnover, that we haven’t had a turnover all game. I was one of the guys saying it and stressing it, and I just got the opportunity and I capitalized.” Roby explained, “I just saw him [RB Fitzgerald Toussaint] kind of holding it out, and we were just talking about getting turnovers, so I just punched it out.”
Once again on Sunday, it was Roby who helped propel his team to victory.
C.J. Anderson Runs Tough to Close the Game
Entering this playoff game, Broncos running back C.J. Anderson had been averaging 6.2 yards per carry over the last eight weeks. Anderson is still the backup to Ronnie Hillman, but once again he was the more effective back.
Anderson seemed to have more energy as a ball-carrier, and his 34-yard run was the longest carry of the day for the Broncos duo.
He powered his way to 72 yards on 15 carries against the Steelers. Anderson also chipped in with two catches for 11 yards. His biggest play of the game may have been his one-yard plunge late in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead touchdown.
Anderson revealed the team’s mindset in Sunday's game.
“We say it every drive, ‘Let’s go get some points,’ but right there it was, 'Let’s go get some points and stop playing around,'" Anderson explained. "I think on that last drive me and Ronnie (Hillman) we just kept going and Peyton (Manning) made some good throws.”
With Manning not quite being his old self, the Broncos should continue to feature both Anderson and Hillman on the ground. Utilizing the rushing attack plays directly into the hands of their defense. By running the rock, the Broncos wear down their opponent while simultaneously giving their defense time to rest.
Running the ball could be what gets them back to the Super Bowl.
Pressure Finally Gets to Roethlisberger
The Broncos had a different plan for the Steelers this time around. In Week 15, the Broncos blitzed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on a whopping 61.4 percent of his dropbacks. Even with those extra blitzers, the Broncos were only able to put Roethlisberger under duress on 14 percent of his dropbacks as he torched them for 354 passing yards.
In this game, the Broncos decided to blitz less and play more zone coverage.
Even without superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger was able to pass for 339 yards Sunday. The Broncos have only given up over 300 yards passing to an opponent twice this season, and both times it was Roethlisberger who did that.
The Broncos didn’t blitz him that often as they played with a small lead or from behind. Roethlisberger did a good job of avoiding the four-man rush, and he was able to distribute the ball to his playmakers downfield.
Once the Broncos got the lead late in the fourth quarter, the pressure on Roethlisberger was finally increased. The Broncos ended up getting to him for three sacks, including a key sack on fourth down that ended one of the Steelers' comeback attempts.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe described what he thought was the key to yet another comeback victory.
“I think our perseverance," Wolfe said. "We’re a grinding kind of team. We have a bunch of grinders out there. We’re not going to give up. It doesn’t matter how many points we have, we’re going to keep fighting.”
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will have a plan for Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. It will be interesting to see whether or not that includes a ton of blitz packages—unlike this game against the Steelers.
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.