The main story for Sunday's meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos is which defense can come away with the stronger performance.
Denver's defense comes into town ranked No. 1 in the league in both yards and points allowed as well as sacks. While Pittsburgh's defense is not as stingy, it has allowed 30 or more points just twice this year and has amassed a fifth-best 38 sacks on the season.
It's going to come down to which team can disrupt the quarterback most often and who can stop the run, and it's going to be a tough task for both sides.
Denver's defense will strain Pittsburgh's offensive line. The good news is the line has held up well when blocking for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been sacked only 14 times in nine games. The bad news, though, is that it hasn't seen a pass-rushing front like Denver's this season.
|Steelers Defense vs. Broncos Defense, 2015|
|PIT||PIT Rank||DEN||DEN Rank|
Denver's linebackers and defensive ends have had little trouble dropping quarterbacks this season. Von Miller has 10 sacks, DeMarcus Ware has 6.5, Shaq Barrett has 5.5 and Malik Jackson has four. And the defense isn't giving up significant rushing yardage either. The last time it allowed over 100 rushing yards was in Week 10.
But while Pittsburgh's defense is near the bottom of the league in yards allowed, it is in the top half in points given up. The Steelers have been focusing on goal-line defense this year, spending Thursdays and Fridays working on their "seven shots" drill, which squares off the offense and defense against one another at the 2-yard line.
Because the Steelers have such a high-powered offense, any time the defense gets the better of it in goal-line drills, it builds confidence. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (via the Associated Press' Will Graves) said on Thursday: "It's mostly because of our offense. We know if we can get stops against them in practice, we can get stops against anybody. Our offense can score whenever it wants, really. When they don't against us, it builds up our confidence when we're playing other teams."
This should greatly benefit the Steelers' defense on Sunday. Denver's offense is scoring touchdowns on just 44.44 percent of its red-zone appearances this year, and that drops to 42.11 percent when playing on the road. And the Steelers will need any chance they get to keep the Broncos away from the end zone, given that Denver's defense is allowing touchdowns on just 53.33 percent of its opponents' red-zone appearances—and 50 percent when on the road.
With Pittsburgh's pass coverage still inconsistent, the pass rush will be the team's biggest key to keeping Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler from extending drives. And Osweiler is very much susceptible to pressure, having been sacked 17 times in five games and four starts—or on 9.1 percent of his pass attempts.
Pittsburgh's defense is more than capable of having a multisack game, and Osweiler is the perfect target.
When it comes to the run game, Denver ranks third in yards allowed and is tied for 11th in rushing touchdowns given up, with eight. At the same time, the Steelers are second in rushing touchdowns allowed, with four on the year, and sixth in yards.
Indeed, it's the passing defense that will matter most for both Denver and Pittsburgh on Sunday. Which team can successfully bring the most pressure will be the deciding factor. The Steelers have the benefit of Roethlisberger, who has long been capable of evading would-be sacks and extending plays.
But Pittsburgh's defense has to be careful not to overcommit to attacking Osweiler, which could open up its secondary to one-on-one matchups that do not work in its favor.
The Steelers defense is a much-improved unit compared to a season ago. But Denver's defense is doing things that are reminiscent of Pittsburgh's most recent defensive heyday.
Pittsburgh's offense, at least, has the better tools to stave off Denver's attack, which could mean a bigger day for the Steelers, particularly in the pass rush.