Most outsiders look at the upcoming divisional game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos and see an injured offensive unit which could hinder Pittsburgh's chances of winning the football game. What is often not discussed is the Steelers' defense being able to slow down Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense from putting up points.
When looking at what needs to be done, there is a clear 'X-Factor' for the defense, well, maybe two 'X-Factors', as they approach the difficult task of slowing down Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and company Sunday evening.
The 'X-Factors'? Defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
While some might point to Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons or one of the members of the secondary, the job of these two down linemen cannot be understated on multiple levels. First, the Steelers defense must stop the Broncos running game to force them into a one-dimensional passing offense. Manning is a genius at reading defenses and knowing where to run away from the blitz and pressure. If Heyward and Tuitt can collapse the weak Broncos' offensive line, it will help aid in making Manning have to win the game with his 40-year-old arm.
In pass defense, the Steelers dynamic duo along the line will have to be disruptive. Manning knows how to dissect the blitz, so getting pressure without sending extra defenders will be critical. Despite Manning's age, he still knows how to manipulate a pocket. If the Steelers cannot get pressure up the middle, it will give Manning a nice pocket for him to step into his high percentage throws.
Collapse the pocket from the interior and Manning becomes a sitting duck for either a sack, or an errant throw which could be intercepted -- something which has happened frequently throughout the 2015-2016 regular season. The Steelers' defense is predicated on the front 7 both stopping the run and rushing the passer. That job starts and ends with Tuitt and Shazier, and is why they are the 'X-Factors' in this Divisional matchup in the AFC Playoffs.