The Pittsburgh Steelers limp into the AFC divisional game against the Denver Broncos.
All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey hasn’t played a snap since August. Running back Le’Veon Bell has been gone since Week 8 and replacement DeAngelo Williams is out at least one more week with a busted right foot. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed a month with a sprained left knee and is not fully healthy for Sunday’s matchup.
Now four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown will miss the first playoff game of his career after sustaining a concussion in last week’s wild-card game against Cincinnati, making Pittsburgh the first playoff team since the 1979 Houston Oilers to play a postseason game without its leading rusher and receiver.
Brown torched the Broncos, owners of the league’s best defense, in Week 15 with 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Only Atlanta’s Julio Jones (3.04) averaged more yards per route run than Brown (2.89) this season, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus.
“We’ve all leaned on him in the past, but it creates an opportunity for us,” Steelers’ wideout Markus Wheaton said Friday.
Wheaton and Martavious Bryant will need to step up, but neither can fully replace Brown. Bryant averages almost a yard less per route run than Brown and Wheaton is lower still, putting even more pressure on Roethlisberger to find open targets.
Bryant had success against Aqib Talib in this year’s regular-season game, catching 9 of 12 passes for 86 yards. With Brown and Bryant shadowed by Denver’s top two corners, Wheaton tormented Bradley Roby, going 5 for 10 for 48 yards and a touchdown, but Roby intercepted Roethlisberger once as well in that match up.
Denver finished the season having allowed the fewest passing yards in the league and the lowest yards per attempt. They were Football Outsiders best pass defense per Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance and opponent. In other words, open targets are few and far between with Chris Harris Jr. and Talib patrolling Denver’s secondary. Harris allowed just two touchdowns against since November 2013 — both to Brown in Week 15 — and ranks No. 8 for yards allowed per cover snap (0.88) among the 79 corners playing at least half of their team’s snaps. Talib is No. 25 with 1.08 yards allowed per cover snap.
Jared Dubin of CBS Sports explains how the Broncos’ coverage could look with Brown’s absence and Darrius Heyward-Bey’s increased workload:
Talib tends to line up on the left side of the field and Bryant is typically on the right, and the size of the two players might lead to a shadow situation. Bryant won the matchup in the first meeting of these two teams, but Brown was on the field that day. It’s likely that any coverage that gets rolled will now get rolled toward Bryant, who is clearly the biggest threat among himself, Wheaton and Heyward-Bey. That could take away some of whatever advantage he held a few weeks ago.
Wheaton will likely move inside to the slot when the Steelers go three-wide (which is a lot), and Harris is usually the Denver corner that bumps inside, so they could get matched up a bunch of the time as well. The Broncos might not want to leave the 5-foot-11 Roby on an island against Heyward-Bey, though, because Harris handles size and physicality better than Roby does. So it’s possible that Roby could draw a lot of Wheaton (who’s also 5-11), as well.
“They still got a bunch of speed, a bunch of talented guys on the field,” Denver cornerback Talib said. “And they still got Ben Roethlisberger. So, we know we’ve still got to do our part.”