STEELERS // BRONCOS OVERVIEW
The 4-6 Broncos are hanging on by a thread in the AFC playoff race, but a win over the 7-2-1 Steelers would go a long way toward helping them to climb back in the thick of things. The Steelers, meanwhile, are enjoying a great season and a hot stretch of play during which they have gone 6-0 following a rough start to the year. Right now, the Steelers control their destiny for a first-round bye in the AFC, and one more loss from the Chiefs would put the Steelers in position to earn home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Expect them to come to play in Denver, where the Broncos have held the Rams to a season-low 23 points and the Chiefs to 27 points (their second lowest output of the year).
The Steelers’ defense vs the Broncos’ offense is another big matchup here, as Pittsburgh ranks fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game. The Steelers are the better all-around team, as they have also allowed the sixth fewest yards per game in the league (Denver ranks 22nd) and the 10th fewest points per game in the league (Denver ranks 13th). Home field advantage can only carry a team so far. We’ll see if it can carry Denver far enough this week.
Vegas has installed the Steelers as only 3.0 point favorites in this spot — awarding this game a middling Over/Under of 46.5. It’s hard to see the Steelers falling shy of a win, though the same could have been said last week for the Chargers at home against this Broncos squad. It’s late in the NFL season, both of these teams are fighting, and anything can happen.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
The Steelers have been one of the pass-heaviest teams in football this year, ranking fifth in pass play rate and regularly pinning their hopes to the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, who has attempted 36 or more pass attempts in all but two games this season — with both of those low-volume outliers coming in blowout wins. As we noted last week when the Steelers traveled to take on the Jags: even in games in which it might make sense to lean a bit more run-heavy, Pittsburgh prefers to pass — a notable trend, given that the Broncos have faced the 10th lowest opponent pass play rate in the league.
Denver has been below-average against the pass this year, ranking 24th in yards allowed for pass attempt in spite of boasting a pass rush that ranks sixth in adjusted sack rate. The issue for Denver has been a number of early-season coverage breakdowns on downfield passes and one of the worst YAC/R marks in the league.
On the season, Antonio Brown ranks fourth in the NFL in targets per game, and JuJu Smith-Schuster ranks 11th — though a notable usage shift has occurred this year, with AB seeing an aDOT of only 11.1 (down from 13.7 last year), and with Juju seeing an aDOT of 8.9 (down from 9.5 last year). This downward shift has left AB relying on touchdowns more than he needed to in the past (with his scores pushing him to strong point-per-dollar lines, rather than pushing him into week-winning territory), and it has led to a wide production range for Juju (three games this year with 60 or fewer yards; five games of 100+).
The toughest matchup goes to Juju in the slot, where he will play 80% of the time and will match up with Chris Harris. Keenan Allen was able to beat this matchup last week on volume, which is what Juju will have to do here. Working in his favor is recent target counts of 10 // 6 // 9 // 5 // 10. In spite of seeing fewer targets on the year than AB, he has actually racked up more receptions, as he and Ben have connected on 68.8% of their throws, compared to a surprisingly low 56.9% for AB. Eight to 10 targets is a solid bet for Juju in this spot.
AB has seen recent target counts of 6 // 8 // 10 // 6 // 13, and he has scored a touchdown in eight consecutive games — the longest such streak since Wes Welker was a thing. Because of the difficult time he and Ben have had connecting this season, he has topped 100 yards only three times all year and has yet to go over 117 yards in a game — making him fairly touchdown-dependent at his top-of-the-board price tag. During this stretch of eight consecutive games with a touchdown, Brown has not topped six catches a single time. Last year, AB topped 117 yards six times and hit double digit receptions six times — while playing only 13 start-to-finish games. He saw only 1.3 more targets per game last year than he has seen this year.
With the Steelers unable all season to get a third receiver involved, this passing attack wraps up with Vance McDonald, who encouragingly played 52 out of a possible 65 snaps last week, though this came only one week after he played 25 of 58 snaps and cannot yet be considered a trend. McDonald has recent target counts of 8 // 3 // 6 // 4 // 6. He has not topped 47 yards since Week 6, though the Broncos have allowed the seventh most yards to the position, making him a boom/bust play.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
After a rough start to the season against the run, the Broncos have tightened up — allowing only 69 yards on 18 attempts to Melvin Gordon last week and 50 yards on 16 carries to Kareem Hunt in Week 8. Denver has also been above-average through the air against running backs, allowing the ninth fewest receptions to the position.
In better news for James Conner: he should return to 20+ touches this week if the Steelers are able to control this game, after seeing 15 touches last week with the Steelers chasing points against Jacksonville and 14 touches the week before against the Panthers in a game in which he suffered a concussion. Conner’s best games have come against pathetic run defenses (the Browns, the Falcons, the Bengals, and the Browns again) and against a Ravens team against whom the Steelers ran over 70 plays — creating an opportunity for 24 carries and seven catches for Conner. Consider this a fair spot for him to rise above 20 touches, in what should be considered a middling to possibly below-average matchup.
BRONCOS PASS OFFENSE
The Steelers have been one of the tougher pass defenses in football this year, allowing the fourth fewest yards per pass attempt and ranking first in the NFL in sacks. Pittsburgh tries to make life difficult on quarterbacks by getting after them with constant pressure and taking away the short areas of the field — which can be an especially difficult setup for quarterbacks who prefer to throw the ball short, as can be attested to by the struggles in recent weeks of Blake Bortles and Cam Newton in this matchup. This is a poor setup for a quarterback in Case Keenum whose average intended air yards of 7.6 is the ninth lowest mark in the league. Keenum has recent yardage totals of 161 // 262 // 290 // 205.
The best yardage total by a wide receiver against the Steelers since Week 4 was 82 yards for A.J. Green — followed by 73 yards for Mohamed Sanu, 62 yards for Julio Jones, and 62 yards for Tyler Boyd. No other wide receiver against the Steelers has cracked even 60 yards since September.
If you feel compelled too attack the Steelers in this spot: Emmanuel Sanders has recent target counts of 7 // 4 // 9 // 6, and while he has failed to crack even 60 yards in five of his last eight games, he does typically see one deep ball per game, which could give him a chance to hit for a long gain as a tourney option. Courtland Sutton has recent target counts of 3 // 4 // 5 // 6, and he has gone for 57 or more yards in four of his last five games, with his explosive downfield skill set giving him upside every time he steps onto the field. Sutton has two touchdowns this year — each of which came in a low-yardage game — and he has been racking up respectable yardage totals since Demaryius left. If he puts it all together one week, he could be a difference-maker at his still-depressed price. Even in a difficult matchup, Keenum is a bigger roadblock for him than the matchup itself.
The best bet for floor production among Denver pass catchers is Jeff Heuerman, who came back to Earth last week with five targets, after seeing 11 targets against Houston before the bye, but who still has four or more targets in seven of his last eight games. Most of these targets are coming practically at the line of scrimmage, which has left Heuerman with only two games all season north of 23 yards — but against a Pittsburgh defense that filters targets to tight ends and has allowed the seventh most receptions to the position, there is opportunity for him to provide some value this week.
BRONCOS RUN OFFENSE
As explored last week in this space, Pittsburgh has been a middling unit against the run — though of greater concern for the Broncos’ backfield this week is the three-way committee that continues to split work among Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, and Devontae Booker. Freeman has only five catches all season, and he has hit double digit carries only once in his last five games. Booker has not had more than five carries in a game in which Freeman was active, and he has topped two catches only twice with Freeman on the field. Lindsay has been dominant every time he sees work, but he has been capped at 12 to 14 carries and two to three catches (with only two “Royce games” in which he rose above that level of pass game work). Lindsay carries the most upside, given what he can do on 14 to 17 looks — but all of these guys have floor concerns in one of the messiest timeshares in the league.
Nothing on the Steelers pops off to me on Main Builds at the moment, but I do like the upside of their passing attack for tourneys, and I like the potential for Conner to post a big game simply due to his role in this offense when games remain in the Steelers’ favor. AB, Juju, Ben, and possibly even Vance are likely to make my Tier 3 list (lower price-considered floor, but plenty of upside), while Conner will flirt with Tier 1 at running back given his role on this team, but he certainly does not pop off the page in one of the toughest road environments in football, in a matchup that has become more difficult over recent weeks.
I’m rarely a big fan of the Broncos’ offense, and I don’t like the idea of attacking the Steelers’ defense, but there is some low-floor upside on Sanders and Sutton, while Heuerman is technically in play for floor, with upside available if he happens to fall into the end zone. In the backfield for the Broncos, I would love to be able to roster Lindsay for the talent-driven upside he carries, but with his touches somewhat limited week in and week out, he would be difficult to prioritize. A solid score is always in the mix for him, but a week-winning score is difficult to come by.
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