PITTSBURGH – No Fly Zone indeed.
That is what the Denver Broncos secondary had begun calling itself. And based on its rankings coming into Sunday’s game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, why not?
Denver was first in nearly every meaningful defensive category and hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer all season. That ended Sunday against the Steelers, as Ben Roethlisberger lit up the No Fly Zone for 380 yards and three touchdowns, getting big contributions from Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, all of whom apparently got their pilot’s licenses.
“I guess you can call it that,” said Wheaton.
With corners Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby, the Broncos are as talented as any team in the NFL at the position. The Steelers, however, feel like they’re pretty good throwing the ball, as well.
Instead of backing away and not taking any chances against that talented trio, the Steelers went right after at, with Roethlisberger throwing the ball 55 times and Pittsburgh attempting just 14 running plays with DeAngelo Williams.
It was all part of the scheme offensive coordinator Todd Haley drew up.
“Todd and Ben wanted to go after them,” said Steelers guard Ramon Foster. “That’s why we’ve got 7. Just throwing the ball, which is their strength, what do they call themselves, the ‘No Flight Zone?’ It’s a great challenge for us. Moving forward, there’s a lot of great defenses we’re going to have to throw the ball against and we’re going to have to execute that stuff. We just made it happen.”
Harris had not allowed a touchdown pass since November of 2013. He was matched up one-on-one all over the field with Brown, the Steelers’ best receiver, while the lanky Talib mostly drew the 6-4 Bryant.
It didn’t matter. Brown not only ended Harris’ touchdown-less streak, he got into the end zone twice and finished with 16 receptions for 189 yards.
Bryant finished with 10 catches for 87 yards, while Wheaton had six for 62 and a score.
The Steelers weren’t about to back down from the challenge Denver presented.
“We feel like we’re pretty good on offense and that’s not taking anything away from them,” said Mike Tomlin. “But if we take care of the ball, we feel like we can go up and down the field on anyone.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case in the first half of this game, as Pittsburgh scored just 13 points with a touchdown set up by a fumble recovery deep in Denver territory on the Broncos’ first possession.
Denver had primarily been a team that had played a lot of man coverage with one safety deep and the other up at the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
But with starting safeties T.J. Ward - he of the "They haven't played us yet," statement - and Darian Stewart out, Denver kept both safeties deep, perhaps taking a page out of what Cincinnati had done against the Steelers with some success.
“They basically did – not the exact opposite – but a lot different than we expected coming in,” said Roethlisberger. “We needed guys to win with man-to-man and mixing up some coverages. It is a tough battle, and I think our guys did that.”
Tomlin likes to refer to opponents as “nameless, gray faces,” and while that might be true, some gray faces present a bigger challenge than others.
In this case, the offense passed its test.
“Man, those dudes are good,” said Foster. “They’re nameless, gray faces, but those gray faces got a lot of accolades on that side of the ball. It was just confidence.”
@ Momentum is a funny thing. Sitting at home or in the stands, you can feel it shift.
That was certainly the case in this game when the Steelers came out and finally got a pair of three-and-outs defensively to open the second half.
Suddenly, the Broncos weren’t as unstoppable as they had seemed in the first 30 minutes.
“Very important,” said defensive end Cam Heyward of those two stops. “I thought we came out with a lot more energy. I thought we just kept on competing. We might not have hit home every time, but when you keep on knocking at the door, somebody’s going to answer once in a while.”
Tomlin said he could feel the momentum shift, but doesn’t believe his team rides that wave of emotion.
“Yes, you can,” Tomlin said when asked if he could feel the shift. “But you don’t respond to it. You have to live down in and down out and maintain that one-snap-at-a-time discipline to your approach.
“You acknowledge that it exists, but for the most part, we do a good job of maintaining an even keel. The veteran presence of a lot of guys helps with that, Ben and James (Harrison) and other guys who have been around. They do a great job of helping the young guys maintain that stable approach.”
That ability to block things out is also why the Steelers didn’t blink when the Broncos were dominating the first half of this game.
That and the knowledge that their offense can go off at any time.
“We just battled through adversity,” said Heyward. “We understand that we’re never out of it. We have an offense that can put up 30-plus points and it doesn’t matter who they play.”
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