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Broncos, Steelers match wits in star-studded affair

PITTSBURGH -- Two numbers tell you everything you need to know about the Broncos-Steelers matchup:

4 -- The number of 25-plus-yard completions the Denver Broncos have given up this season.

23 -- The number of 25-plus-yard downfield passes the Pittsburgh Steelers have completed this season.

The match of wits between Denver's vaunted defense and the Steelers' high-wire offensive act deepens the already-intriguing matchup filled with star players, with or without Peyton Manning.

What impresses Ben Roethlisberger about Denver's defense?

"Everything," he said.

Let's dig into this terrific matchup with some back-and-forth with ESPN's intrepid Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler.

Game on.

Legwold: Jeremy, what have the teams that have successfully rushed Roethlisberger done?

Fowler: Not much. Ha. For a guy that used to take a ton of hits, Roethlisberger has cut down on his sack total a lot. He has 14 sacks in nine games, by far his best average (1.55 per game). Speed rushes off the edge can be a problem for the Steelers at times, so perhaps that’s something Von Miller & Co. can expose. Young left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has had a productive year but occasionally has trouble with raw quickness. The Chiefs and Bengals have had success with this. Time the snap and burst off the line. Overall, Pittsburgh’s line has probably overachieved while playing through injuries. Denver’s pass-rushers should keep pursuing, because Roethlisberger will hold the ball, especially when he’s ready to launch a deep ball. He’ll stay in there and take hits.

Fowler: Jeff, why can Brock Osweiler perform well on the road against a playoff-caliber team?

Legwold:: When Osweiler was put into the lineup, he wasn’t some rookie tossed into the job. Some of his teammates, including Manning, watched Osweiler go about his business in meetings, on the practice field for almost four years before he made his first NFL start. As Miller said; "We saw Brock every day, how he practiced, how he worked. So when he went into games, we knew what he could do. We weren’t surprised." Osweiler has taken plenty of sacks -- 17 in his five games, four starts -- but he has avoided mistakes and shown, in a comeback win over the New England Patriots, that he has composure under pressure. The Broncos players react to him, they believe he can help them win games.

Legwold: The Broncos have looked slightly disjointed on offense all season, Jeremy. What do the Steelers expect?

Fowler: Maybe this is coachspeak coming from Pittsburgh, but Mike Tomlin and the Steelers have studied the Broncos closely and are preparing for a potent game plan from Osweiler & Co. The Steelers want to minimize the damage with play-action. If the Broncos get the running game going, they know a Gary Kubiak offense can run effective bootlegs to the left or right. They don’t think the offense changes much whether Osweiler or Manning is in there. If the Steelers can stop the run, they feel good about their chances. Pittsburgh ranks sixth in rushing defense at 3.8 yards allowed per game. But the defense as a whole will give up the occasional big play. That’s when it starts to unravel. A little C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman might create a few deep-ball chances for ol’ Brock.

Fowler: So, Jeff, if there's a weakness in Denver's D, what is it?

Legwold: The Broncos are No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in sacks, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 3 in run defense. That is a tall order in these pass-happy times. The Broncos are aggressive; they play plenty of man coverage and they pursue the ball with fervor. Occasionally some misdirection plays work. And given that cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib force quarterbacks away from the wide receivers, some offenses, particularly the Patriots and Chiefs, have had some success working the ball to the running backs and tight ends. But teams that try to work the perimeter find the Broncos have the speed to chase things down and they consistently pressure quarterbacks with four-man rush packages.

Legwold: The Broncos play plenty of man coverages and love to do it. Has anyone been brave enough to try that with Antonio Brown this year?

Fowler: Actually, a few have gone "Braveheart" on Mr. Brown, and to reasonable success, but context is necessary. Brown had three catches for 45 yards in October against San Diego’s press man coverage, but he had Mike Vick throwing to him. Brown had a modest 51 yards against Richard Sherman, who played man almost exclusively on Brown while the rest of the defense played zone coverage. But Sherman might be the game’s best, and Roethlisberger was intent distributing the wealth to Martavis Bryant and others that week. He wasn’t going to force to Brown. That’s the danger of the Steelers. If the Broncos slant too hard Brown’s way, Roethlisberger has four other options that he can find open. Brown knows he could see a little action from both corners, Talib and Harris, if the Steelers move Brown around.

Fowler: Jeff, I’m curious, what has it been like from your perspective covering what many believe is a sad ending to the Peyton Manning era?

Legwold: Well, Manning has consistently said he would keep playing if he enjoyed it and if he believed he could help his team win. He didn’t look like was doing either against the Chiefs on Nov. 15, when he misjudged playing through plantar fascia near his left heel. But he has worked hard in his rehab since then. There have been times this season, moments, like stretching with his son before a preseason game, or waving to his daughter from the sideline or throwing a couple of fade routes to two boys he pulled out of the crowd during a training camp practice, when you could see joy. Some who know him say they believe he’s tried to enjoy the ride a little more. He has said he knows "there’s no guarantee" he will return to 100 percent. But many of his teammates believe what has separated Manning from other players they’ve seen play a long time is Manning still enjoys the Monday-through-Friday work. Manning has consistently said, "I’m just trying to be a good teammate."