NFL Game Scripts Week 2: Denver Broncos @ Pittsburgh Steelers
After moving the ball with some success against the Titans in Week 1, the Broncos were their own worst enemy on offense at times. Meanwhile, the Steelers let their defense do the work, while their offense was trying to find its feet again after last season’s injury issues. With Denver travelling to Pittsburgh in Week 2, both teams are trying to get everything clicking before too long.
Denver Broncos Offense vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Defense
The Run Game
Denver had a fairly balanced approach in Week 1, with 23 rushing attempts to 33 passing attempts. Where they had success was in getting Melvin Gordon free outside the tackles, using TEs on both sides of the line, as opposed to more uneven alignments, to disguise the run direction. Although Pittsburgh will have LBs TJ Watt and Bud Dupree setting the edge, a pulling TE such as Jake Butt or Nick Vannett can serve as a blocker for Gordon to run at the tackle, and either cut inside if a hole opens, or follow his blocker to the outside. While they didn’t do it too often against Tennessee, Denver could look to get their TEs in motion if they see an opportunity in the defensive alignment.
Depending on their early success running the ball to the outside, Denver will want to avoid being forced to run up the middle towards LB Devin Bush. Although the Broncos may run up the middle early to test the waters, the Steelers will want to take away outside runs, so that they can concentrate their forces on closing down interior rushing lanes. While Gordon can break tackles, unless he has early success up the middle early on, Denver may be forced to show their hand by bringing in Fullback Andrew Beck as a lead blocker. Either way, Denver will use blockers for Gordon (and Lindsay if he’s healthy) during the first half to see where gaps can be opened up in the second half.
Of course, while not technically part of the run game, designed passes to the RBs to get them into space will add as a stand-in rushing attack. Getting the combination of Gordon, Lindsay and Royce Freeman on wheels, curls, swings and screens outside the hash marks as receivers out of the backfield will also be integrated into the game plan from start to finish. Denver will not only want to spread the Steelers’ LBs across the field, but also tempt them to send extra defenders closer to the line of scrimmage.
With no clear deep threat emerging yet for the Broncos, expect them to try and draw defenders in so that the likes of Noah Fant, Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton can try and get behind the Safeties. To do that, Denver will need to get the run game going, or at least an artificial run game by getting their RBs outside the tackle box as receivers.
The Passing Game
With much optimism before the season, the Broncos have plenty of weapons to turn to in the air. QB Drew Lock made plenty of accurate throws, and avoided turning the ball over. TE Noah Fant was the team’s best deep threat, and things are unlikely to change in Week 2. Using a combination of two and three WR sets, Denver found success at times with 10 different players hauling in a reception. Having seen them in action, they can now decide how best to put them on the field to take advantage of different coverages.
Assuming Courtland Sutton suits up this week, he will be stationed on the outside all game, giving Denver the one thing they lacked against the Titans. Using his size, Sutton will be matched up against CB Joe Haden, and towards the end of the first quarter, Denver will start taking shots to the sideline, or ask Sutton to box out Haden for chunk yardage. With Noah Fant running dig, post and hitch routes up the middle, it will force the Steelers to shade coverage either away from Sutton, or to split Safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds on either side of the field. Once they do this, Jerry Jeudy will get one on one matchups to make plays underneath.
The basis of Denver’s passing attack will be spreading the Steelers’ defense out as much as possible, hitting the slot receiver(s) on short and intermediate throws. Then, when they get single coverage matchups, taking shots to Fant and Sutton downfield and to the outside.
The other receivers will play supporting roles. Tim Patrick had the most snaps of all Denver receivers against Tennessee, and can be used on the outside opposite Sutton. Tyrie Cleveland and Diontae Spencer were more suited to curls and short passes, but with Sutton back, Denver may be more inclined to use 4 WR sets at times. Having Sutton, Patrick, Jeudy to take the focus of the defense, Spencer, Cleveland or a second TE will get a favourable matchup against the Steelers’ Dime DB Cameron Sutton or Sean Davis. In short yardage situations, Denver should be using an empty backfield, and having Lock target the slants and flats for short gains and avoiding throwing into coverage.
The additional component that Denver will work towards to fully unlock their passing game is play-action and having Lock rollout on bootlegs. This will allow him to either scramble upfield, or work through his progressions more easily, as the receivers can be split into the levels and Lock leads them on throws into space. To counter this, Pittsburgh will continue to have Dupree and Watt sit just outside the tackles, instead of rushing Lock in the pocket. This will allow them to stop Lock’s runs and rollouts, as well as to disrupt short passes and screens.
Instead, pressure will come through the middle, with Dupree and Watt coming on delayed blitzes in an attempt to contain Denver’s offense, especially early on. Once Denver either abandons the run or play action, Watt and Dupree will return to their roles as pass rushers. However, if the Broncos have success early, the same will happen to try and disrupt their momentum.
What should we expect to see on Sunday?
The Broncos will aim to remain balanced while they think they are in the game, and use a range of formations early on. Using extra blockers to free up rushing space outside the tackles, Denver will also try to get Drew Lock moving and shift the Steelers’ defenders around to create holes on subsequent plays.
Opening up space on underneath and short throws, with Jeudy adding yards after catch will allow Denver to take shots to Fant and Sutton throughout the game. While the Steelers can match up on the outside, they will want to keep Safety help for most of the game to avoid Fant exposing the smaller DBs. Additionally, Dupree and Watt may not rush the pocket as much at first, with pressure coming up the middle, but once the Broncos are forced to run up the middle and look for short passes first, they will be unleashed to bring pressure from both sides.
Pittsburgh Steelers Offense vs.Denver Broncos Defense
The Run Game
Pittsburgh haven’t figured their identity on offense after Week 1, but historically with Ben Roethlisberger at QB they have tended towards downfield passes to balance out the rushing attack. With no RB currently earning the role of a workhorse, the Steelers will ride with the hot hand against Denver.
Although they have question marks along the OL, FB Derek Watt will see frequent time on the field as a lead blocker, especially when running between the tackles. The Steelers will run through the middle and to the outside early in the game to probe and find where they can have success later in the game. To combat this, ILBs Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson will be lined up across from the Guards to shoot the A and B gaps, where they had some success limiting Derrick Henry in Week 1.
The Steelers will seek to unleash James Conner up the middle, but if he can’t get going, will turn to Benny Snell to run stretch and outside zone plays, with either Watt, a TE, or a pulling Guard to give extra protection and spring Snell into space. The Steelers may choose to also put multiple RBs on the field at once, so that they can choose to run inside or outside the Tackles based on the Broncos’ defensive alignment.
While Conner could see some opportunities on the outside, the Broncos were effective at gang-tackling Henry in Week 1. The Steelers will need to get creative to get their RBs to the second level. Their best bet is to use counters and draws through the middle, and change the play at the line of scrimmage based on Denver’s formation. Getting Watt in motion to the outside to try and draw a LB with him will also clear some rushing lanes for Conner and Snell.
Pittsburgh won’t do this until after a few drives, as they will need to determine if they are having any success with the run. Once they start to struggle, they will become creative and deceptive with their rushing plays, instead of running through the A gap and outside the tackles.
The Passing Game
Although not completely on the same page yet, there were flashes of chemistry for the Steelers in the passing game against the Giants. While Juju Smith-Schuster remains the top wideout, having Chase Claypool as a big outside target and Diontae Johnson and James Washington from the slot allows the Steelers to target whoever is facing single coverage. Johnson provides a quicker deep threat as well, and should be sent on post and go routes to try and get behind the DBs. On top of that, if Johnson gets free deep, Roethlisberger reads the field well enough to target him. If Denver are in single high Safety looks, it will either free up space across the field by drawing extra coverage, or give Johnson a one-on-one matchup.
Claypool and Smith-Schuster will be patrolling the outsides, with Claypool running hitch, corner and out routes, while Smith-Schuster runs a variety of slants, post and vertical routes. Denver’s starting outside CBs will provide a tougher matchup than the Giants did, and should be aiming to shade their receiver to the outside, giving Roethlisberger less space to make his throws. However, with Washington and/or Johnson running in and crossing routes over the middle, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have much difficulty hitting either one, as Denver’s nickel and dime DBs will have difficulty playing man coverage. While the Broncos may choose to use zones over the middle, this will still leave too much of a cushion for Roethlisberger.
What the Steelers didn’t do much of in Week 1 was use TEs in the passing game, but they could increase that this week. Moving Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald off the line of scrimmage will draw a defender out of the box, helping the run game. Denver could choose to use Mark Barron in coverage against a TE to give a better size matchup, although Safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are better for speed. If Ebron makes runs downfield, one of the Safeties should be lined up against him, but the TEs are unlikely to be a major threat outside of the red zone, and will mostly be used to draw coverage away from the real target.
What should we expect to see on Sunday?
Pittsburgh will aim to be balanced early on, running directly up the middle and to the outside at first, before disguising their looks and trying to draw defenders away from the line of scrimmage by moving Derek Watt or a TE. The passing game will feature mostly two and three WR sets, each with a unique role, limiting the Steelers in disguising their play design throughout the game. Denver will position their LBs to negate the run game where possible, and aim to give extra coverage in the middle of the field with their LBs as well to support the nickel and dime DBs.