Sunday's showdown between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field promises to be the prime showdown of the week in the NFL. For the Steelers, it's not necessarily lose-and-go-home, but for a team that needs to control its own destiny and establish momentum, it is critical to come away with a defining win. Beating Denver could very well define the remainder of the season and quite possibly pave a less rocky road to glory.
There are so many matchups that will forge the outcome of this contest. In no particular order, here are five important head-to-heads to focus on.
Key Matchup #1
The Killer B's (and a W) vs The No Fly Zone
This is going to be a battle of epic proportions. The Steelers boast the second-best offensive attack in the league, while the Broncos are tops defensively. Whoever gets the upper hand in this matchup will probably be celebrating in the locker room afterwards.
The Steelers play pick-your-poison at receiver. If Antonio Brown (100 catches for 1,397 yards and 7 TD) doesn't kill you, Martavis Bryant (38/672/6) or Markus Wheaton (32/589/3) will.
Matching up against Brown will be Chris Harris Jr. Per Denver Broncos.com, Harris ranks third among players that have played 75% of their snaps by allowing 9.4 yards-per-reception. Harris has four pass-defenses and two interceptions in 2015. Harris excels in man coverage and adjusts very well to what he sees from the QB or the WR he is covering.
Most likely shadowing Bryant man-to-man is Aqib Talib. The 6'1" Talib has better size to cover Bryant. He has 11 pass defenses, three interceptions and 2 pick-sixes on the year. Bryant has the gears to blow by most corners, but Talib is not most corners.
Then there is Wheaton vs Bradley Roby. Roby, seven PDs and one interception, would start on most teams, especially in Pittsburgh. These two are very dangerous too at their respective spots and might actually steal the show with a lot of attention being paid to the bigger names on both sides of the ball.
Safety T.J. Ward provided bulletin board material this week when he said about the Steelers offense, "they're hot because they haven't played us yet". However Ward will be cold on the bench due to an ankle injury. This is a loss for the Denver secondary, but they still have the defensive playmakers to still come hard.
It's a toss-up whether the B's can get off of the ground and take flight or if the No Fly Zone defense can keep Pittsburgh grounded. This is Must See TV.
Key Matchup #2
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs DE DeMarcus Ware
Even though I fear for the safety of Ben Roethlisberger against the relentless pass-rush of the Denver Broncos, I have faith in a veteran QB that knows how to escape trouble in Houdini-esque fashion. But Sunday will be Ben's toughest test due to the fact that when Denver brings pressure, they come in droves from all angles.
Roethlisberger, 2,989 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 picks, was named by Sports Illustrated this week as the most physically-gifted quarterback in the NFL. He will need those gifts when facing the top-ranked defense in the league led by Ware. The Broncos have not allowed a 300-yard passing game all year and allow only an average of 188.2 passing-yards-per-game. They are also third-best against the run, so you can't rely on the running game to carry you either.
Ware was limited last week against Oakland due to a back injury. He is expected to see his playing time increase dramatically in Pittsburgh. The former Cowboy ranks 10th all-time with 133.5 sacks. He has 6.5 of them in 2015. If the veteran can stymie LT Alejandro Villanueva, he can help stop the clock on Big Ben.
Key Matchup #3
RT Marcus Gilbert vs OLB Von Miller
This is one of the more important and challenging matchups of the day for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both men are enjoying career years and will have a lot to say about the outcome of this game.
Gilbert went 12 games without allowing a sack this year, until Carlos Dunlap beat him last week in Cincinnati. Gilbert has been a boulder on the right side of the line and will need to be even more unmovable this week.
Miller, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, has been dominant at his outside linebacker position for Denver. #58 has amassed 10 sacks and four forced-fumbles on the year.
If Gilbert allows Von Miller to terrorize Ben Roethlisberger, the high-powered Steeler offense will go down in wattage considerably. If Gilbert needs assistance from TE Heath Miller, then Ben loses his safety valve to extend drives and move chains. But if Gilbert can neutralize his 2011 drafmate who has sacks in his last five games, Ben will have time to go to work.
Key Matchup #4
DE Cam Heyward vs QB Brock Osweiler
Osweiler, who was named to remain the starter this week over Peyton Manning, will face a defense that ranks very low against the pass, but has proven to be able to get to the quarterback from all angles in 2015.
Osweiler, who won his first three career starts, fell back to earth against Oakland last week. He was pressured relentlessly, missed open targets, had passes batted down and was accused of holding on to the ball too long in the 15-12 loss in Denver.
Can Heyward has become the defensive heart and soul of the Steelers. He leads the team with six sacks. Against a batterred offensive line that has left Osweiler running for his life lately, Heyward and company are opportunistic and know how to exploit weaknesses. If they can get penetration, it could be a long day for the young QB.
Key Matchup #5
LCB William Gay vs WR Manny Sanders
I'm still bothered by the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders In the Mile High city. In Steeltown, Sanders made catches but he was by no means anything close to being a star. One of those reasons is that he treated the ball like a frightened mailman would a package slathered in Anthrax. However in Denver, he has the firm grip the equivalent of a tenured senator's mitts on the buttocks of a secretary. I also failed to forget the disparaging comments that Sanders made regarding Ben's work ethic once he landed in Denver.
All that aside, Sanders has become a playmaker the past two seasons in Denver and will most definitely be excited to show off his since-found superpowers at Heinz Field on Sunday. This season Sanders has 57 catches for 788 yards and four scores.
With Demariyus Thomas demanding attention on the other side, it will be critical for William Gay to keep track of Sanders or the fourth-worst pass defense in the league will get torched once again.
Other Key Matchups:
RB Deangelo Williams vs DE Derek Wolfe
TE Heath Miller vs LB Danny Trevathan
C Cody Wallace vs NT Sylvester Williams
LB Lawrence Timmons vs RB Ronnie Hillman and RB CJ Anderson
CB Antwon Blake vs WR Demariyus Thomas