The Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers played in the wild-card round in the 2011 playoffs and the Broncos prevailed 29-23. Despite Denver’s success last season, John Elway brought in Peyton Manning, sent Tim Tebow to New York and revamped the defense.
Attacking the Broncos in 2012 is nothing like it was in 2011. There is no zone-read option to stop and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio isn’t going to bring as many exotic blitzes as his predecessor. The Steelers need to attack the Broncos much like they would have done against Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.
The Steelers last played the Colts in 2008 and they lost 24-20 after Manning orchestrated a touchdown drive to give the Colts the lead with 3:10 remaining in the game. Manning had three touchdown passes, but the Steelers allowed Manning to complete just 21 of 40 passes.
The Steelers didn’t let Indianapolis use the running game to set up the pass.
If Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t thrown three interceptions, the Steelers may have won that day.
Attacking Denver’s Offense
When the Steelers last played the Broncos, they barely had to account for the pass. By ignoring Tebow’s ability to throw, the Steelers allowed big pass plays that cost them the game. Demaryius Thomas had catches of 51, 58 and 80 yards, including the game-winning catch in overtime.
The Steelers will not overlook the pass in Denver this year—not with Manning throwing the ball.
Attacking Manning is much more difficult than attacking Tebow because he can read the blitz and he knows how to beat it. The Steelers will need to rely on natural pressure from just four rushers to make Manning uncomfortable.
Manning will find the open receiver when he has the time, but pressure will force him to quicken his reads and check down to running backs. Manning is one of the best about getting the ball out of his hands and he avoids taking big hits.
Denver is a very healthy team and only right guard Chris Kuper will miss the game. The Steelers should attack Kuper’s backup Manny Ramirez to see if they can get pressure in the face of Manning and force him to move in the pocket.
Despite the Steeler’s efforts, Manning is going to complete his share of passes. Forcing Manning to take the shortest completions will give the Steelers an opportunity to get off the field on third down.
It’s the bend, don’t break approach to attacking Manning.
Another strategy that could be effective is daring Manning to throw deep. Manning didn’t throw a lot of deep passes in the preseason, so the Steelers could try to take away all the intermediate and short options and dare Manning to use his arm to beat them. That strategy has a high probability of failure and the Steelers would need to abandon the strategy quickly if Manning demonstrates that he can go over the top.
Manning is the kind of quarterback that takes what the defense gives him, and the defense always gives him something. If you have to give Manning something, don’t give him long completions.
The Steelers held the Tebow-led Broncos to 3.9 yards per carry, but then got beat by the pass. Similarly, the Steelers need to be careful not to focus too much on Manning and forget that the Broncos also want to run the ball.
Willis McGahee is a patient and smart running back who—like Manning—will take what the blocking and the defense gives to him. McGahee isn’t going to beat many defenders to the edge and the Steelers can cheat inside knowing that McGahee is rarely going to run off tackle.
Even if McGahee gets outside, he isn’t going to burn through the secondary. Stopping McGahee can be as simple as jamming the middle with defenders. The Broncos will counter by running from passing formations which will put the pressure on a nickel cornerback or safety to help support the run.
Good angles and solid fundamental tackling by the Steelers is the key to limiting Denver’s running game.
Attacking Denver’s Defense
The Broncos return only four defensive starters from the end of 2011: Champ Bailey, Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and Joe Mays. That means that this is almost an entirely different defense than the Steelers faced last season, although a few key reserves remain.
Isaac Redman averaged 7.1 yards per carry against the Broncos last January and the Broncos hope a healthy Ty Warren and the addition of Justin Bannan at defensive tackle will help correct the issues they had against the run.
That doesn’t mean the Steelers shouldn’t attack the Broncos’ front seven. Wesley Woodward is a nickel linebacker that is being forced to start in place of D.J. Williams and he isn’t known for his ability to stop the run. The Steelers should run at Woodyard and force him to fill running lanes and make tackles in traffic.
Woodyard often came in on passing downs for Joe Mays, but that option is no longer available with Woodyard starting. Mays isn’t known for his ability in coverage and the Steelers need to exploit him in the passing game when and if the opportunity arises.
Attacking the Broncos through the air isn’t easy with Dumervil and Miller rushing from opposite ends.
It’s similar to the way the Colts used to attack opposing offenses with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis; Manning gets a lead and lets Freeney and Mathis pin their ears back and attack the quarterback.
Tracy Porter’s addition opposite Bailey ensures opposing quarterbacks will not find easy quick completions in the secondary when Dumervil and Miller are getting good pressure.
The weakness in Denver’s secondary is the safeties. The Broncos are hoping to find the right combination of Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter, Mike Adams and Jim Leonhard. If the Steelers want to attack through the air they should test the deep middle with crossing and seam routes.
If Manning gets a lead, Denver’s defense will dominate against the pass. The Steelers must keep the running game involved and exploit Denver’s vulnerabilities in the running and passing game between the hashes.
The Steelers should mix the run and pass and focus on the center of the field to put the pressure on Denver’s linebackers and safeties.
Christopher Hansen is the AFC West lead writer for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow @ChrisHansenNFL on Twitter and "like" the AFC West blog on Facebook. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.