By Christina Rivers

On Sunday, the Denver Broncos will enter Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers coming off of a disappointing loss to the Oakland Raiders in Week 14. With Peyton Manning’s status still in question as head coach Gary Kubiak continues to evaluate his rehabilitation, there is no certainty that Brock Osweiler won’t get the start against the Steelers.

The Steelers are on a hot streak, coming off of a heated contest against the Cincinnati Bengals for a win. By early appearances, the Broncos are outmatched, but no game is a certain win in the NFL this season. Their 10-3 record speaks to the fact that Denver presents a real challenge.

Denver offense under Osweiler still lacks punch

There is a chance that Manning could return against the Steelers, but Kubiak rested his veteran quarterback over the weekend and practice this week is likely the determining factor. “We’ll have a plan in place…take it a day at a time,” Kubiak said.

Over the last four games, Osweiler has completed 108 of 170 passes for 1,140 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. The offense has put together some solid drives, but could not finish them off with points from the red zone. With Osweiler at the helm, Denver has a 3-1 record, even though they have averaged more points per possession (compared to more yards per possession with Manning).

The red-zone production remains their biggest issue. “I believe in each red-zone appearance that we were seeing different things,” Osweiler said after the game. “ I have to find a way to get our offense into the end zone and scoring touchdowns.”

“We were really poor in the red zone,” Kubiak said after the loss Sunday. “We had 225 yards at halftime and they had negative yardage (minus-12), and we’re up 12-0. We had a chance to do some damage in the first half and didn’t do it, and obviously helped them in the second half with two turnovers, and I think four or five drops.”

Broncos defense struggling due to carrying the offense

Denver allowed just one Oakland drive to go for longer than 22 yards, holding the league’s No. 8 offense (in average yards per play) to just a 2.3 yard average. It was one of the most dominant games the Broncos defense has put together this season. “We knew what we were doing,” said defensive end Malik Jackson. “We can’t worry about putting up points; all we can do is stop their offense.”

Denver essentially did just that in the first half, then allowed Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to exploit a weakness in the secondary on an 85-yard drive that was capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass to receiver Seth Roberts in the second half. It was the only drive that produced more than one first down. After a muffed punt, Carr threw the go-ahead touchdown.

“You just can’t go out there and say, ‘Well, the defense did good’,” said Jackson. “That doesn’t matter. You need the special teams and offense and defense to do good. So it’s one of those things where all three phases didn’t get it done today.” Cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., said, “We beat ourselves.”

Broncos players to watch against Steelers

Denver hasn’t put a ton of emphasis on the run game, focusing on the pass to gain yards and earn points this season. Demaryius Thomas leads all Broncos receivers with 88 receptions for 1,067 yards and three touchdowns. With Thomas as the number one, the Steelers will need to focus on not overlooking a threat they are familiar with: Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four on the season and has the ability to stretch the field. With Pittsburgh still struggling in the defensive backfield, keying in on Denver’s receivers will be a determining factor. Sanders is also dangerous on special teams as a returner.

On defense, Von Miller is a beast this season. Recording ten sacks and four forced fumbles, Miller also leads the Broncos in tackles with 68 total. His production is steady for a full 60 minutes which has forced opponents to attempt to double-team him on the outside.

Key Factors

If Pittsburgh can limit receiving yards and put pressure on the quarterback Denver fields with an improved defense, they have the offensive power to overpower the Broncos. This will be a true test for the offensive line that has held up fairly well under pressure this season. Denver will look to attack the Steelers where they are weakest, and that continues to be in the defensive backfield. The Steelers can’t afford to give the Broncos an opportunity to run the scoreboard.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.