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Steelers-Broncos Playoff Preview

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No Antonio Brown. No DeAngelo Williams. An injured and physically-limited Ben Roethlisberger. That's the bad news for the Steelers. The good news is the team has a game on Sunday, while 75 percent of the league is finished for the season.

The absence of offensive firepower figures to severely challenge the Steelers, particularly against a Broncos' defense that ended the 2015 regular season as the NFL's best.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)
AFC Divisional Round
Sunday, January 17
4:40 PM on CBS
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado

What's On the Line: A trip to the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers last advanced to the conference title contest in January of 2011, when they beat the New York Jets in Pittsburgh before losing to Green Bay in the Super Bowl. Denver was also victorious in their most recent AFC Championship appearance, beating the New England Patriots 26-16 in January 2014 before losing Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seahawks by a score of 43-8.

Steelers Players to Watch: Offensive tackles Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva. The offensive line is always crucial every week, but their importance will be magnified in Denver on Sunday. The Steelers front five will be tasked with protecting an injured Ben Roethlisberger against a Broncos pass rush that features outside linebackers Von Miller (11 sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (7.5). With Roethlisberger's throwing shoulder already compromised, any type of contact could send the ailing veteran to the bench. The Steelers did a phenomenal job defending Ware and Miller in their 34-27 regular season win over Denver in late-December, holding the duo without a sack or even a tackle. But while it's usually enough for an offensive line to be pretty good, this week, the Steelers line—particularly the tackles—has to be close to perfect.

Broncos Players to Watch: Safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward. In their last meeting, Roethlisberger abused Denver's back-up safeties—as well as star cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris—for 380 yards in the air, the only quarterback to throw for more than 300 against the Broncos' defense this season. He'll have a tougher task with Stewart and Ward back in the line-up. "We got lucky the first time," admitted Roethlisberger about the team's Week 15 over the Broncos. "We made plays, they had guys injured, we were at home. It's not going to be that easy (again)." In addition to the injuries to Stewart and Ward, Roethlisberger was healthy in the December matchup – and he also had Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams at his disposal.

X-Factor: Steelers tight end Heath Miller. The veteran hasn't been featured much in the passing game this season, but with Brown out, the Steelers may want to utilize No. 83 more often. Miller's ability to find soft spots underneath the defense would likely open the field for Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darious Heyward-Bay to get free outside. But without Williams' expertise in blitz pick-up, the Steelers are going to need help protecting Roethlisberger from the tandem of Miller and Ware. Will veteran Matt Spaeth be up to the task, or will Miller have to stay home more often than not?

Of Note: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has not played a full game since Nov. 8.

Injury Report: The Steeles will be without All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who received a concussion on a late-hit by Cincinnati linSteelers Mike Tomlinebacker Vontaze Burfict in the closing seconds of Pittsburgh's Wild Card win last week. Running back DeAngelo Williams will miss his second consecutive game with an injured foot. Though Roethlisberger (shoulder) is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game, he's expected to give it a shot. Fullback Will Johnson (hamstring) is also questionable.

The only player on the Denver injury report is back-up quarterback Brock Osweiler (knee), but he is fully expected to back-up Manning come Sunday.

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