QB Manning, Broncos impressed by Steelers linebackers

The Steelers defense Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, at Heinz Field.
The Steelers defense Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 7:33 p.m.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning always knew how to look at the Steelers.

He looked everywhere. That is where he would find their linebackers.

It's also where Manning will be looking Sunday afternoon.

“They have very athletic linebackers,” Manning said. “That's a real asset for their defense.”

Something surprising has happened as two of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history — Manning and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger — prepared for only their second postseason showdown. That something was the turning back of the clock.

Remember when people talked about defenses winning championships? People here started talking like that again this past week.

But the Denver Broncos finished atop the NFL in total defense. The Steelers ranked 21st.

What gives? Not the Steelers defense, actually.

“They're very stingy in the red zone (and) creating turnovers,” Manning said. “Those are things that jump out about this group of Pittsburgh Steelers and this defense.”

A lot of the Steelers' final defensive rankings far fall below the standard for an organization that has produced a league-best 19 top-10 scoring defenses since the AFL-NFL merger.

The Steelers finished 11th in defensive scoring this season. But only 22 NFL teams faced more defensive snaps than the Steelers' 1,055.

So the working theory where the ground is a mile high is that this Steelers defense operates in rarefied air.

Most defenses are in danger the more they're on the field. Instead, the Steelers are a dangerous defensive team — top 10 in sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries — because the more they're on the field, the more likely they are to make something happen.

Think of it as a trap, Broncos players said.

And think of it being set by a couple of Steelers linebackers loved by Broncos coach Gary Kubiak.

It's tough to tell whether Ryan Shazier or James Harrison impressed Kubiak more during film study of the Steelers. Tougher to tell which one he would rather have seen less in the flesh.

Kubiak conceded Shazier, a second-year insider backer, has some Troy Polamlau to him.

“He has great speed. They obviously bring him on a lot (on blitzes),” Kubiak said. “He can get to the quarterback. He can cover anybody. You see him cover tight ends. Sometimes he locks up on wideouts in the some of the things they do.

“He's a heck of a player. I know he was injured a little bit last year, but he's been really something else this year.”

The shorter passing attack emphasized this season by the Broncos could provide Shazier another opportunity to turn a playoff game into his showcase.

Shazier recorded nine tackles, and two for losses, in addition to proving himself a menace, in the Steelers' wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

So why did Kubiak recall another Steelers linebacker menacing the NFL's other Ohio team earlier this week?

“I was watching him (Wednesday) morning against Cleveland,” Kubiak said of Harrison. “He made that big interception in the red zone.

“I've got a lot of respect for him. He's a hell of a player.”

Harrison snapped a three-game postseason drought with his sack against the Bengals. Like the quarterback he'll try to take down Sunday at Sports Authority Field, Harrison's best days might be behind him.

“These are the type of games he feeds off,” Kubiak said. “He always has his whole career.”

The best Steelers teams — and one of those did in Manning and Kubiak a decade ago — feed off the linebackers.

This one is no exception.

From Shazier to Harrison. With a rookie in Bud Dupree and a veteran in Arthur Moats. Behind a blossoming former first-round pick in Jarvis Jones.

Here come the Steelers with their linebackers, and the Broncos know where this game will be won or lost.

“The name of the game is to hold guys like us up so guys like them can make big plays,” Broncos left tackle Ryan Harris said. “Their guys can obviously make those plays. We can't let them.”

Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer.Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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