MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT
Steelers 35, Broncos 24
Dec. 7, 1997, at Three Rivers Stadium
The Steelers needed the best game of Yancey Thigpen’s career, and one of the best of Kordell Stewart’s, to defeat the Broncos on the way to their first NFL title. Thigpen caught a career-high three touchdown passes, all in the first half, to tie John Elway’s Broncos at halftime. Stewart ran four yards for a touchdown to take a 28-24 third-quarter lead, and then tried to get Thigpen a fourth TD pass from the 4-yard line but Darrien Gordon intercepted the pass in the end zone. Elway drove the Broncos to the Pittsburgh 27, but a third-down sack by Carnell Lake was followed by a missed 53-yard field goal, and Stewart clinched the win with a 9-yard touchdown run with 1:57 left. Stewart’s 303 yards passing was third-best in his career, and his five total touchdowns matched a career high. Thigpen’s 175-yard game was the second-best of his career. Jerome Bettis rushed for 125 yards and Bill Cowher called it “our most complete game of the year.” The Broncos gained revenge in the AFCCG at Three Rivers Stadium a little more than a month later.
TALE OF THE TAPE
“The interior of their defensive line, Derek Wolfe and Domata Peko, aren’t the players they once were. Adam Gostis is pretty good but none of them are scary pass-rushers. Now, Von Miller is a great player. He has great hands, great moves, and Bradley Chubb is kind of like LaMarr Woodley with some real girth to him, a terrific bull rush, and great hands with his rip to the corner. They use Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett, so they have quality depth to spell their ends. They like to save Miller for the perfect time in the game when he can take it over, and he does.” — Steelers Radio analyst Tunch Ilkin.
Can the Steelers block Miller and Chubb?
The Broncos’ pass-rushing duo leads the NFL with 19 combined sacks, 13½ in the last five games. Miller, the future Hall of Famer, has 10 sacks this season, and Chubb, the No. 5 overall pick of this year’s draft, has nine. The Steelers will be without starting RT Marcus Gilbert (knee) for a fifth straight game. His replacement, converted guard Matt Feiler, is questionable with a pectoral injury. Rookie third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor might be a better matchup against the 250-pound Miller anyway because of his athleticism, but it would be quite a baptism for Okorafor if he makes his first career start today.
With NT JAVON HARGRAVE
Q: Did you barge into the front office and demand to play more in sub-packages or something?
JH: “Ah, I don’t know about all that. We’ve got some good pass-rushers inside in Cam and Tuitt, so that’s kept my reps down, but I did get both sacks last game out of the nickel.”
Q: You lead the DL with five sacks, but Cam Heyward said that even if you hit double digits in sacks you won’t get a new nickname. He said you’re “Wobble” forever now. How do you react to that?
JH: (Laughs) “It’s stuck now. It’s stuck. I ain’t got no choice no more. Everybody’s saying it. That’s what everybody calls me.”
Q: “Grave Digger” is the better nickname, don’t you think?
JH: “That’s for the real fans, man.”
What to look for from the Steelers this evening at Broncos Stadium:
The Steelers hope to take advantage of an injury to Broncos ILB Brandon Marshall (out/knee) by beating his slower replacement, rookie Josey Jewell. Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby (concussion) is questionable, but will probably play after practicing full-time Friday. Roby’s bookend, Chris Harris, was scorched by the Steelers in their last meeting and surely hasn’t gotten any faster in the ensuing three seasons. The Broncos’ back end is ordinary and might be the primary reason the Broncos rank 30th in yards-per-completion allowed (12.5).
The loss of Stephon Tuitt (out/elbow) shouldn’t be the disadvantage it was last week against powerful inside runner Leonard Fournette. Broncos QB Case Keenum has an interesting array of weapons, led by Emmanuel Sanders, but the offensive line has been patched together with guard Connor McGovern moving to center to replace the previous two injured starters. Left tackle Garett Bolles is Denver’s best lineman, but the Steelers should be able to pressure Keenum and add to their league-leading sacks total.
The 7-2-1 Steelers might have a more difficult time against the 4-6 Broncos than records indicate. In comparing key stats over the last five games, the Broncos are better at the line of scrimmage (+0.6 per carry) and much better in scoring efficiency (+3.1 yards per point). And these numbers were compiled against five teams with a cumulative won-loss record of .673 (compared to the Steelers .450 opposition). The Steelers have a startlingly low yards-per-completion allowed (7.6), but again their competition the last five weeks hasn’t been strong, compared to the Broncos’ recent opposition that included the Rams, Chiefs, Texans and Chargers. ... Steelers, 26-24.
BY THE NUMBERS
5.2: Yards per carry by the Broncos is first in the NFL. It’s a tenth of a yard better than their 5.1 average returning punts, which ranks 30th.
14: Sacks allowed by the Steelers this season, third-fewest in the NFL. It’s one-half more than what Miller and Chubb have combined to compile in Denver’s last five games.
134: Yards receiving by JuJu Smith-Schuster would give him his first 1,000-yard season. As a rookie last year, Smith-Schuster had 917 yards receiving.
181: Career-high receiving yards by former Steelers WR Sanders in his only regular-season game against his former team. In four seasons with the Steelers, Sanders never had a 100-yard game, but has 18 in five seasons with the Broncos.
189: Antonio Brown’s receiving yards against the Broncos in the same 2015 game. The Steelers rallied from a 17-point deficit on Brown’s second TD catch, a 23-yarder with 3:24 remaining in the season finale. Both Sanders (third round) and Brown (sixth round) were drafted by the Steelers in 2010.
n The Steelers are 1-4 (including 0-2 post-season) at Denver under Mike Tomlin. Their lone win occurred in 2009. Tomlin was asked by Steelers.com about preparing for games in high altitude, and Tomlin said, “I’d just as soon show up in very good shape and play football. I don’t overanalyze it that way. There has been a lot of good football played over the years — Vince Lombardi and people like Chuck Noll didn’t waste time on some of that minutiae, and they fielded really good football teams.”
n T.J. Watt and Denver’s Miller are two of only three NFL players with at least 10 sacks and four forced fumbles this season. T.J.’s brother J.J. Watt is the other.
n Denver made Courtland Sutton the third wide receiver drafted this year, and the 6-3 3/8, 218-pounder out of SMU developed so quickly the Broncos were able to trade Demaryius Thomas, the hero of the one-play overtime 2011 playoff win against the Steelers. Sutton, who’s said to run faster in pads than his 4.54 Combine 40 would indicate, has started the last two games (6-135) and his 20 yards-per-catch average leads the NFL. Sutton was the 40th pick of the draft. The two WRs drafted ahead of him — D.J. Moore (Panthers) and Calvin Ridley (Falcons) — combined to catch eight passes for 58 yards in losses to the Steelers.
n Tomlin called Broncos rookie RB Phillip Lindsay “a great runner who is dangerous.” But, even though Lindsay gained over 3,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 32 touchdowns his last two seasons at Colorado University, Tomlin said he “had to get a flip card to figure out who he was.” Tomlin wasn’t the only coach who didn’t know Lindsay, a 5-7¼, 184-pounder who went undrafted in spite of running a 4.39 40 at his pro day. Even the Broncos drafted a since-cut RB from Arkansas in the seventh round instead of the homegrown Lindsay, who averages 5.5 yards per carry as a slick cutback runner and dangerous receiver in the screen game. When told of Tomlin’s comments, Lindsay called it “an honor,” but added “it sucks for him because now it’s time for him to see what it’s about.”
n The Broncos’ rookie trio of Sutton, Lindsay and RB Royce Freeman have combined for 1,676 yards from scrimmage, the fourth-most yards by a rookie trio through 10 games since the 1970 NFL merger. The 1983 Rams with Eric Dickerson, Otis Grant and Henry Ellard compiled 1,901 yards in their first 10 games.
“Listen, nobody can really block Von Miller to tell you the truth, so we’ll have to put a couple guys over there. We are not going to be crazy and make one guy do it.” — Ben Roethlisberger.