The Steelers’ trio at wide receiver -- Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton -- has been a migraine-inducing problem for defenses this season. Meanwhile, the Broncos are No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in sacks and No. 1 in pass defense with two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. and a No. 3 cornerback in Bradley Roby, who could start on many other teams.
“I am excited," Talib said. “ … Three receivers, three corners, good quarterback, good rush … that’s the kind of game you want to be in, man.’’
ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold look at what to expect.
Steelers wide receivers: Speed. Forget 40 times. The Steelers play fast, get in and out of breaks fast, create yards after catch fast. Bryant is 6-foot-4 and very quick for his size. Brown’s precision makes him think and move faster. Wheaton has above-average quickness. This group is so speedy that one of the biggest combine freaks ever, Darrius Heyward-Bey, can barely see the field as a No. 4 receiver.
Broncos defensive backs: While many would prefer to play off coverages, the Broncos like to put their cornerbacks in man-to-man situations. “We play more man than anybody," Harris said. “Everybody knows we’re going to play man." And they do it well, even as recently as this past Sunday, when they held Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper without a catch. Calvin Johnson averaged just 9.6 yards a catch, Randall Cobb had six catches for 27 yards, and Jeremy Maclin had 57 and 17 yards in his two meetings against the Broncos. Harris makes it all go with his ability to play on either side of the formation, both outside and in the slot if needed.
Most impressive stretch of games
Steelers wide receivers: The Brown-Bryant-Wheaton trio combining for 1,251 yards over a four-game stretch from mid-November to early December was pretty special. Brown nearly broke several NFL records with his 284 yards against Oakland. A week later, Brown and Bryant combined for 317 yards against Cleveland. A week after that, Wheaton went for 201. Brown is the primary option, but Ben Roethlisberger is an equal-opportunity passer.
Broncos defensive backs: Just pick a grouping, any grouping, and the body of work is a rare one. They have not surrendered a 300-yard passing game this season, and they have held Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing, Joe Flacco to 117 yards passing, and Derek Carr to 135. Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler didn’t crack the 300-yard mark. All told this season, the Broncos have surrendered just 22 pass plays of at least 25 yards and just nine pass plays of more than 30 yards.
The one to watch
Steelers wide receivers: Bryant. His presence creates a mismatch problem for the Broncos, at least on paper. Because if Denver puts Talib on Brown, the 5-foot-10 Harris must handle Bryant’s size-and-speed combo downfield. Bryant is the primary deep-ball option for Roethlisberger, who loves to go long. As a result, adequate safety help is crucial when playing Pittsburgh. Brown has seen all types of coverages this year, so he’ll be ready for either corner. Talib has the quickness and size to make things interesting for Brown.
Broncos defensive backs: Talib will often get the marquee matchup because of his size-speed combination and his “special skills," as Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has termed it, when the ball is in the air. But for the Broncos, Harris is the chess piece because he is comfortable playing both on outside receivers and in the slot on either side of the formation. So, the Broncos can play him wherever they want on whomever they need to. Harris plays with confidence and rebounds quickly from any rare mistakes. He has even lined up at safety on a smattering of snaps.
Steelers wide receivers: Wheaton. After a curiously slow start to the year, Wheaton has emerged as a legitimate slot receiver, with 316 yards and two scores in his past three games. Wheaton suffered from the quarterback flux after Roethlisberger got injured, but he and Roethlisberger have found something over the middle of the field that works. Their timing is on. Roethlisberger trusts him now. Wheaton has good hands. If the Broncos double either outside option, Wheaton will become a prime target.
Broncos defensive backs: It’s Roby. The second-year cornerback is tough, athletic and willing to stick his nose into the action against the run. The Broncos think enough of him to have restructured their base defense at times to play a three-cornerback look that includes Roby at one of the safety spots. The Broncos call it “single," as in one safety, but it enables them to match up in a bigger variety of coverage situations because Roby is a good tackler when needed in the run game.
Something you didn’t know
Steelers wide receivers: Roethlisberger and Brown have a close relationship on and off the field. Brown said jokingly that Roethlisberger is pressuring him to marry his longtime girlfriend. The two talk about comeback routes and parenting, sometimes in the same conversation.
Broncos defensive backs: Harris is an undrafted player, signed with the last signing-bonus money the Broncos had available in 2011. He was not invited to the NFL’s scouting combine before the draft. But he has made himself into one of the league’s best at his position, even making the Pro Bowl last season. Harris might not be in this position if he hadn't volunteered to move to safety for part of his senior season at Kansas. “I was bored, nobody was throwing the ball at me, we needed help, so I did it. I think some people thought I was just a small safety before the draft. I still think about that, but I ended up [in Denver], so I guess everything really does happen for a reason."