When the Broncos run

This might be the battle the Broncos need to win the most on Sunday. In the first half of the Dec. 20 matchup, Denver started on

a great pace, running for 88 yards on 17 carries. It had only 16 rushing yards on eight carries after halftime. There's no excuse for only eight attempts after ending the half with a 14 point lead. Pittsburgh has the No. 5 rushing defense in the NFL. Young linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons anchor the Steelers' stout inside unit. Edge: Steelers

When the Steelers run

The dynamic changes a little with running back DeAngelo Williams out Sunday. Backups Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint have filled in well, totaling 123 yards on 28 carries against Cincinnati last week, but Denver's run defense is a different animal. The Broncos allowed a NFL-low 3.3 yards per rush attempt. Edge: Broncos

When the Broncos pass

It's Peyton Manning under center this time, meaning a different game plan for the Steelers to adjust to. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin mentioned the "comforts of home and line-of-scrimmage communication" as factors that are advantages to Manning. Denver's offensive line against Pittsburgh's pass rush will be a big question. Manning can't afford to take too many hits from James Harrison or Ryan Shazier. Pittsburgh's secondary is leaky. Edge: Broncos


When the Steelers pass

Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown being out is a huge factor. He pretty much single-handedly beat the Broncos Dec. 20 with 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder is hurting, and the Broncos have the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL, eager to redeem itself for its poor performance at Pittsburgh. Edge: Broncos

Special teams

Brown's absence hurts the Steelers becuase he is an electric punt returner. Markus Wheaton and Brandon Boykin are expected to fill Brown's role. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell is 29-of-32 on field-goal attempts, including the game-winner against Cincinnati last Saturday. Broncos' kicker Brandon McManus has slowed down after a strong start to the season. Edge: Broncos

Come out firing

Several Broncos players said they thought their 2015 divisional playoff loss to the Colts came because they were looking ahead to the Patriots. Now, with Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and running back DeAngelo Williams out, it appears to be a cakewalk to the AFC championship. A mindset like last year will get Denver beat. The Broncos need to put points on the board early and don’t let the Steelers linger around. It would be devastating for the Broncos hope if they come out flat.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) yells out the cadence during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers on Jan. 3, 2016 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)

Attack and conquer

Aggression is a huge part of the Broncos’ defense and they’ll need it Sunday. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is a wounded warrior, but Denver can’t afford to retreat. Bring the heat and force the Steelers’ quarterback to hang in there and make every throw. Roethlisberger’s throws likely will be mostly screens and dump-offs, so the Broncos need to play tight and tackle great. Hard hits, physicality and intensity will turn into turnovers and punts.

Just don’t screw it up

There aren’t many times in Peyton Manning’s career when he has been asked to be a game manager. If he takes care of the ball and takes what the defense gives him, the Broncos should live to play another game. The offensive line has been an issue all season. Expect the Steelers to increase the pressure and send extra blitzers at Manning all game. The Broncos would be smart to lean on running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. The duo should get at least 30 carries.

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