#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: High Anxiety

A tough challenge awaits in a place where Pittsburgh rarely wins

WEEK 12

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-2-1) VS. DENVER BRONCOS (4-6)

CBS, SUNDAY, 4:25 P.M., BRONCOS STADIUM AT MILE HIGH, 76,125

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: FOUR MINUTE DRILLED / The slumbering Steelers awakened to score two late TDs (with the help of some Jacksonville clock mismanagement and penalties) that stunned the Jaguars and effectively ended their season while propelling Pittsburgh further into the AFC North lead and higher in the AFC playoff standings.

This week’s announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson. It sounds like we’ll be hearing a lot of these three down the stretch. Last week’s re-introduction was a mixed bag. Some good (Romo identifying early that Jacksonville was pounding the Steelers by using an extra tight end instead of a fullback), some bad (neither guy remembering there is no 5-yard facemask penalty any more in the NFL) and some of the same (Nantz could not have been more obviously rooting for Jaguars if was wearing teal and gold). We saw several people complaining that Romo predicting the outcome of every play is getting old and we tend to agree. Save it for the big plays, Tony. Also, kudos to Wolfson for doing something truly rare last week: Providing valuable information from the sidelines. In her halftime interview with Tomlin, she quoted him as saying, “We’ve got to stop the run because we’re killing them when they pass.” That set up beautifully Tomlin’s decision to take a penalty and a 3rd-and-long situation instead of 4th-and-short. And right on cue, T.J. Watt recorded a strip sack that was ever-so-close to becoming a turnover too. At his press conference Tuesday, Tomlin confirmed he took the penalty, going against conventional wisdom, because he thought his defense was dominating Jacksonville’s pass pro and could make a splash play. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Sunny, 47. The Steelers are dodging the deep freeze by going to the Rocky Mountains. Right. Although weather CAN be an issue in Denver, the elevation WILL be an issue. Pittsburgh’s philosophy traditional has been NOT to try and adjust to the elevation and rather to get into town as close to the game as possible and get out as quickly as possible. We’re guessing that won’t change this year. The Steelers are 3-6 in Denver since 1990, but it’s hard to gauge whether any of that is due to difficulties with elevation or it’s just the fact that Denver usually has a pretty good football team. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Tony Corrente. The league averages in penalties called continues to drop each week so someone in the NFL offices has gotten the message. After Week 10, officiating crews are calling an average of just below 13 penalties per game for just below 111 yards assessed. Each of those numbers now is below the averages for the last four seasons. This crew already has been judicious, averaging 12 flags and 98 yards assessed per game. Also, the Steelers are now second to the Chiefs as the most penalized team in football. As an aside, the Packers have been penalized an astounding 302 yards more than their opponents. That’s crazy. The Steelers are actually +2 in net penalty yards, meaning their games have been flag filled, which we well know. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: The Broncos used an inexcusable fourth-quarter officiating gaffe (Peyton Manning giving himself up, then being allowed to get up and complete a huge downfield pass) and an excruciating fourth-quarter fumble by Fitzgerald Touissant to best the Steelers, 23-16, in a divisional round playoff game in January of 2016 where Pittsburgh was without both Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown (both knocked out in different games by Vontaze Burfict).

The line: Pittsburgh -3/47.5. Smarts say: Not sure how Steelers can be favored by a full score in a place they rarely play and even more rarely win. But there it is. Also, the dramatic improvement in Pittsburgh’ s defense has the over/unders creeping back to 2017 levels. Putting line and O/U together and you get 25-22 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 4th passing, 26th rushing, 4th scoring (29.9 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (14)

DEN defense, 18th passing, 27th rushing, 13th scoring (23.5 ppg), 7th sacks (31)

When the Broncos have the ball:

DEN offense, 15th passing, 8th rushing, 19th scoring (22.8 ppg), 11th sacks allowed (24)

PIT defense, 7th passing, 9th rushing, 10th scoring (22.5 ppg), 1st sacks (37)

Giveaway/Takeaway: DEN +2 (15th in league); PIT -3 (21st in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): DEN .573; PIT .464

So…: One game against Blake Bortles and the Steelers went from 17th to 7th in passing defense and 15th to 10th in scoring defense. Also, Pittsburgh’s strength of schedule slipped below .500 for the first time this year as nearly everyone on that schedule lost this past week. The Broncos probably should get some slack for their record considering they’ve played the Chiefs twice, the Rams, the Texans and the Chargers (33-6 combined). Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: James Conner

Why: Conner is no stranger to adversity, on and off the football field, but this might be the first real psychological adversity he’s faced as a top-line pro. We know he can catch the football, he knows he can catch the football, Ben Roethlisberger knows he can catch the football. But the fact remains, on two critical plays against Jacksonville, with the game on the line, he did not catch the football. You can bet Conner wants to redeem himself and Roethlisberger is likely to give him those opportunities.

Denver: Vance Joseph

Why: The clock was already ticking on Joseph’s time in Denver when he made the monumental mistake of failing to challenge a two-point conversion ruling that officials clearly got wrong and that would have given his team the lead in the fourth quarter against the Chargers. With L.A. looking like it was going to turn Joseph’s mistake into victory, there was some thought whether the Denver coach would last to see the Steelers. Then, Philip Rivers made an equally ghastly mistake and the Broncos rallied to win with a FG at the wire. Not only that, Denver is now only a game out of the final AFC playoff spot and Joseph truly is coaching for his job.

Key matchups:

Steelers OL Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro vs. Broncos NT Domata Peko and ILB Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall. Why: For a number of reasons, Pittsburgh has to run the ball effectively to win this game. First and foremost, running the ball is the best way to neutralize the Von Miller and the Broncos pass rush. It will get James Conner back in the proper frame of mind. However, since giving up 208 years to Todd Gurley in Week 6, Denver’s rush defense has been stout, not allowing 100 yards in team rushing in the past five games. For the Steelers to snap that skid, they’ll need a big game from DeCastro, especially, who’s been a road grader this year in the running game.

Quick hits:

+ It certainly looked like Pittsburgh’s coaches were being outschemed early last week against Jacksonville, but just as with the players in that one, it’s how they finished that matters and they made two huge (and very interesting) adjustments that are worth reviewing. The first came on the defensive side of the ball where Pittsburgh countered the Jaguars’ early success using one wide receiver and three tight ends with their own formation featuring a nose guard and three safeties. In this case, it was Jordan Dangerfield, a physical and sure tackler, replacing Coty Sensabaugh on the field. The second was even more subtle as they shifted JuJu Smith-Schuster out of the slot for most of the second half into the Y spot (usually a split end) where he was better able to use his physical tools along the boundaries (instead of banging in the middle of the field). The result of that, of course, was two huge deep catches, one each over Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye that just might have been the two biggest plays in the game. We wonder if we might not see a little more of this in the future as a) it obviously provided results, and b) it also gets Ryan Switzer, who seems to be developing some chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, onto the field in the slot.

+ On top of that, Mike Tomlin hinted this week that Eli Rogers might be activated soon from the PUP list, meaning even more flexibility with the Y and Z positions. If and when Rogers is activated, it will be very interesting to see who goes. Justin Hunter is the obvious choice, but he is a Big Ben favorite. Roethlisberger obviously has not formed any kind of connection yet with second-round pick James Washington. Pittsburgh almost certainly wouldn’t release such a high pick, so might someone else go while the team keeps six receivers?

+ The Steelers remain in the No. 2 slot in the AFC, one-half game ahead of the Patriots and Texans because of Pittsburgh’s tie with Cleveland. And actually, the ciphering on all the various Steelers playoff seedings will be very simple this year because of that tie. It basically means all tiebreakers will be decided by the division or conference record and none of the other criteria will come into play (unless another contender records a tie down the stretch). For example, right now Pittsburgh is 2.5 games ahead of Baltimore in the AFC North. The Ravens have concluded their division schedule at 5-3. Pittsburgh is 4-2-1 in the division with a game to play yet with the Bengals. If the Steelers win that game, they’re 5-2-1 and would win any division tiebreaker with the Ravens. If they lose, it, they’re 4-3-1 and would lose any division tiebreaker with Baltimore. There’s no way any other tiebreaker can come into play since division record is the first tiebreaker within a division. The same logic carries over to conference tiebreakers.

The pick: The Ravens win over the Bengals last week combined with the Broncos upset of the Chargers put Denver right back in the AFC Wild Card picture. The Bronco’s old-school formula in their win last week (run the ball and stop the run) might not hold up against the flashy AFC teams, but it’s the exact kind of game plan that could give the Steelers fits. In fact, we think Phillip Lindsay vs. James Connor in yards gained will be a good barometer how this game is heading. We’re thinking Lindsay wins that battle and in the war, it’s… Denver 24-21.

Last week: Our strategy of picking against the Steelers every week finally paid dividends last week in the best possible as the Jags covered the five-point spread but the Steelers won, leaving us 2-7-1 straight up and 3-7 against the spread. (Note: We started this “pick against the Steelers” every week well before a semi-popular Pittsburgh radio personality began doing the same thing on Twitter.)

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