What looked like the first start of the year for Drew Lock got a lot murkier on Friday as Teddy Bridgwater has cleared concussion protocol.Embed from Getty Images
After a tough week against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens that saw the Denver Broncos drop from 1st in Pass/Rush-D, Total D, Points Against, and Time of Possession, drop anywhere from 2nd-5th in their respective categories. The Broncos manhandled the Jaguars, Giants, and Jets through the first 3 weeks. Then hit the brick wall that was the Ravens who exploited warts across Denver’s roster the less talent-laden teams they faced beforehand simply couldn’t. I believe the latter is where the Steelers lie, and I will break down just how a Teddy or Drew lead team can escape Heinz Field with a victory.
Heinz Field is a notoriously hard place for visitors to play, regardless of the Steelers’ talent on the field. The Steelers are 400-238-9 (including playoffs), a ridiculous .625 winning percentage. But it’s not like they are blowing every opponent out, the average margin of victory is less than 4 points. Pittsburgh also holds the all-time record for winning percentage (.713) and wins (309) against visiting AFC opponents. The Denver Broncos is second on that list in wins (288) and 3rd in win% (.679). There were second in win% before the loss to the Ravens on Sunday, which put Baltimore in the 2nd spot. You may ask, how is he going to spin this into a positive for the Broncos? I’m glad you asked.Embed from Getty Images
As I stated, despite the dominance the Steelers’ all-time home record eludes too, don’t forget that small margin of victory. The Broncos all-time on the road have scored the 3rd most average points (20.2) 1.4 points behind the Patriots. That brings the average margin of victory down to 1.3 points. An easily beatable margin in a game with an oblong spheroid that tends to bounce in funny ways.
The Broncos are only 1 of 2 teams in the AFC with multiple road victories. Yes, they came against the Giants and Jags, but winning on the road in the NFL is incredibly hard. As the team with the most road victories in the AFC all-time is this Steelers franchise as well (both wins and win%) with the only winning record of 214-207-2. The Cowboys are the only other team with a winning record on the road in its own conference. All the records/stats so far are courtesy of StatMuse.
That 20.1 road points average aligns well with the Denver Broncos Offense so far in 2021 which has averaged 20.8 PPG. That’s only 21st in the league, but they face the 3rd worst offense in the league as far as PPG at 16.8 in the Steelers. The Steelers look like they may be getting back 2 of their top 3 targets in Chase Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster. But the Steelers have the worst rushing offense (55.5 YPG/32nd), which looks at a one-dimensional game as Denver D is 5th against the run at 70 YPG. The Broncos D is also 6th against the pass even after Lamar torched them for 300+ last week. The Steelers O is 19th in passing at 258.3 YPG. All the stats in this paragraph are courtesy of Yahoo! Sports.Embed from Getty Images
The biggest thing going for Denver Offense is the Steelers Defense. The Steelers D is ranked 16th overall giving up 357.75 YPG and only has 1 INT and 5 total sacks through 4 games. That with what I said in this article, that whoever starts at QB will get guards Dalton Risner and Graham Glasnow back to improve their protection against a one-dimensional pass rush. Outside of T.J. Watt, no one really scares you. This should mean a relatively clean pocket for a QB to work out of, especially if Shurmur gets out his own way and utilizes the 2/3-TE sets that were so successful in their 3-0 start to the season.
I also do not see the Denver Broncos carrying over a misguided Cover-Zero game plan they used defensively last week. I see Denver getting back to the suffocating defense they played the first 3 weeks against another bad offense with a statue at QB. Von Miller and Co. should feast in this game. As well as the Denver running game that should be leaned on heavily regardless of the QB under center.Embed from Getty Images
Speaking of QB’s, up until Friday afternoon, this looked like Drew Lock’s first start of the year. But after Teddy practiced fully Friday after being cleared by an independent specialist earlier in the day. This worries me not as a person that wants to see Lock play. But schematically, as Drew has taken all the reps with the 1’s this week. I know Teddy was in the building and viewed practices.
But that is not the same as actually taking the reps. Then after no practice reps with the starters while at home is a stretch. Going into a hostile environment like Heinz Field is a completely different animal. This is the edge a team in desperation like the Steelers needs. This was also a serious concussion that caused Teddy to have involuntary body movements. No concussion is “small” or “little”, but this one looked nasty. Coming back in 6 days doesn’t sound like you are putting player safety first Vic.
So in summary, regardless of the QB, if the Broncos can run the rock, expand the 2/3-TE sets, and go back to the defense that dominated the first three weeks, they can win. But if they play a less than 100% Teddy, run the offense out of 3 wide sets, and continue the communication issues on the defensive back end from last week, they will lose. This is one of the closest matchups on paper in the NFL this week. But I do believe the Broncos defense will be the deciding factor in a hard fought game.Embed from Getty Images
Denver 20-Pittsburgh 13