The Broncos come into Pittsburgh off a tough loss to the Tennessee Titans. While they did lose, it was a great effort by the Broncos against a team that was in the AFC Championship last season. This game on Sunday is by no means a walk in the park for the Steelers, as they will learn through watching film of that week one matchup. What can the Steelers expect to see on both sides of the ball? What playmakers will they have to watch out for? Can they exploit any matchups?
The offensive scheme run by Pat Shurmur is one that maximizes Drew Lock’s ability to win as a quarterback. They take advantage of his mobility, but also use his arm strength. Much like the Giants, this is a team that wants to push the ball vertically given the right opportunity. However, Shurmur also sprinkles in motion and lots of rollouts to take advantage of Lock’s legs. The misdirection that Shurmur uses on his offense opens up guys at all levels of the field, but especially at the immediate flats.
This is one of the examples of that rollout. They make the formation tight but have set this up all day long. As the run game shows, the Broncos love to use 12 and 13 personnel to get their way in the running game. It is a dual-zone and gap scheme that they use. They counter the overaggressiveness of the defense with play-action rollouts such as this. The Steelers will have to be careful when they get too aggressive playing against Melvin Gordon and the running game.
One other characteristic of the Broncos scheme is they spread defenses out. This partially helps the running game by lightening the box, but even more so, they love to cause traffic to either attack underneath or get guys open down the boundary. With Courtland Sutton in here, plays like this would likely be more successful. If the Broncos have him on Sunday, their scheme is far more potent. They can push the ball down the field more with Sutton on board.
As far as the running game goes, again, this is a diverse running game that does not have one big constant. Aside from the abundant use of motion, they did use a lot of pulling guards and motion to get lead blocks out in front of Gordon. That is likely to be a constant this week given their heavy success last week on these runs.
As far as the Broncos defense, this is primarily a quarters scheme. That often means attacking the Broncos underneath will be a way to really shred them. However, they also were beaten badly on deep over routes off of play-action against the Titans. The Steelers do not like to use play-action often, but this is a week it could show up in at least a limited capacity. Even if the rushing attack is not as potent as a Derrick Henry-led attack, the Steelers can still have success in this area.
This is pretty simple. The Broncos have Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell as their linebackers, and at best, they are average in coverage. They are very exploitable, which should see the Steelers attack the middle of the field often with guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster this week.
The other thing to watch out for is star safety, Justin Simmons. Simmons loves to come down from the two-high shells that the Broncos can implement and rob the middle of the field. Similar to how the Steelers use Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Broncos like to run man coverage to free up their playmaking safety.
Key Players to Watch
TE Noah Fant
Fant was a big part of the Broncos first half gameplan on Monday night. An athletic tight end that bust seams with ease, Fant is the definition of a mismatch weapon for any offense, but especially one that likes to space out defenses. If Fant gets a mismatch against someone like Vince Williams, the Steelers could be very prone to some chunk plays on Sunday and they will have to scheme against that.
S Justin Simmons
Simmons continues to be one of the best safeties in the NFL right up there with guys like Fitzpatrick. He is a versatile chess piece that condenses a million roles into one on this Denver defense. Maybe the most important thing to take a look at when considering what Simmons can bring to the table is his range and ball skills, both of which are excellent. Ben Roethlisberger will have to be careful as he tries to test the defense anywhere near Simmons this week.
WR Courtland Sutton
Sutton is essentially the question mark of this game at this point. If he ends up playing on Sunday, the Broncos can implement more vertical schemes rather than just play the rollout game like they did last week. There is no guarantee that they will be able to do either sufficiently, but with Sutton, the Steelers cornerbacks will be far more stressed by the big, smooth receiver who can bring down anything thrown his way.
Key Matchups to Watch
Kevin Dotson vs Jurrell Casey
This is perhaps the most important matchup of them all. With David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, both out with injuries, Steelers rookie Kevin Dotson is being thrown into the fire against one of the better defensive lineman in the NFL right now. It is about to be the toughest matchup for Dotson on his young career, but he has been facing guys like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt all week to train him for this. In those limited snaps against the Giants, Dotson looked good, but he’ll have to rise to the occasion here to protect Roethlisberger.
Steelers Receivers vs Broncos Cornerbacks
On the other side of the ball, this is the one to watch. With A.J. Bouye hitting injured reserve for the Broncos, they have lost their top cornerback for at least three weeks. Even with rookie Michael Ojemudia playing well, they will still have mismatches all across this matchup. Essang Bassey, an undrafted free agent, will have to rise to the occasion for the Broncos. Bryce Callahan is a decent slot cornerback, too. However, the Steelers have an opportunity to use their receiver talent and have a successful day through the air.
T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree vs Garrett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson
Just like last week, the Steelers star tandem of edge rushers has a favorable matchup heading into Week 2. Just last week, they notched 15 pressures in total. Bolles was not bad last week, but he did get beat, and facing Dupree is no easy task for anyone, especially him. Wilkinson got dusted more than a few times by Harold Landry and Jadeveon Clowney. Now, Watt is in the perfect position to have yet another big game this week. If Drew Lock panics under pressure, this Broncos offense could be stymied by the Steelers pass rush.