Keep The Running Game Rolling
Over the last three regular season games, the Denver Broncos averaged more than 142 yards rushing. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson seem to have found their groove, running behind their ever-shuffling offensive line.
In Week 15, the Pittsburgh Steelers limited the Broncos to just 104 yards rushing. Brock Osweiler threw the ball 44 times, while Broncos rushers tallied just 19 true totes, not counting quarterback scrambles.
That ratio must be more balanced this time around. One big difference between Week 15 and this matchup is the fact that Peyton Manning will get the start at quarterback.
Manning showed in the second half of the Broncos' Week 17 win, after he relieved a beleagured Osweiler, that he can be a weapon for the running game, by reading the defense and exploiting matchups at the line of scrimmage.
The Broncos can't expect Manning to put the team on his shoulders. From what we've seen this season, that's a recipe for disaster (17 interceptions). But when the offense is balanced, and the running game flourishes, Manning is truly deadly.
But it will take a commitment at the coaching level. Part of that is personnel decisions. Giving Michael Schofield reps with the first team during this week's practices portends badly for the offense.
Head coach Gary Kubiak only gets one swing at making the right decision. Let's hope that Tyler Polumbus starts at right tackle and plays out the game, even though Kubiak said this week that both guys will play.
The running game exploded in the second half in Week 17, after Manning and Polumbus were inserted. It's not a coincidence.
Bring the Pressure On Big Ben
In case you've been living under a rock, Ben Roethlisberger has a badly injured right shoulder, his throwing shoulder. Although he's currently questionable, expect him to start in Denver.
Big Ben will be without the guy who represents 40 percent of Pittsburgh's total offensive production, Antonio Brown, who has been ruled out with a concussion. Martavis Bryant is healthy, as is Markus Wheaton.
But without Brown and with an injured Big Ben, the Broncos have the opportunity to really get after the Steelers. To add insult to injury, or injury to insult, DeAngelo Williams will also miss this game with a foot.
The Steelers will try to lean on their young reserve running backs, but against Denver's No. 1 defense, the Steelers are going to have to throw the ball. Wade Phillips is not adverse to dialing up the pressure.
We can expect to see the Broncos bringing the heat on Big Ben, with the objective of keeping him in the pocket. The Steelers O-line is a formidable unit, but at home, with the crowd at their back, I expect the Broncos' front seven to show their worth.
Keep Roethlisberger guessing with a good balance between man and zone coverage looks and force him to read the field. Without Brown, the Broncos' pass rush has to win their matchups at the point of attack.
I'd be surprised if Big Ben finishes this game. We might get a good look at Landry "Awe, Shux" Jones.
Protect Peyton Manning At All Costs
Peyton Manning sat out six games with a plantar fascia tear. If the Broncos want to make it to the AFC Championship game, they'll need their five-time MVP healthy.
The Steelers have James Harrison to rush the passer, who's always at his best in big games. Bud Dupree has come on of late and that's another reason why Kubiak can't risk letting Michael Schofield see the field at right tackle.
If the Broncos can run the ball well and give Manning third-and-short situations, the playbook opens up a lot of possibilities. And Manning knows how to make the most of them.
I hope we don't see a game where Manning is throwing it 40+ times. But even with a balanced offensive approach, the Broncos must be committed to protecting their 39-year-old signal caller.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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