Offensive injuries put spotlight on Steelers' defense

Ralph N. Paulk
| Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, 9:45 p.m.

Mike Mitchell abruptly brushed aside the naysayers who suggested the Steelers' title aspirations were dashed when All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown was ruled out of Sunday's AFC divisional-round game in Denver.

But Mitchell conceded it will be difficult to overcome the loss of Brown. Already, the injury-plagued Steelers were without running back DeAngelo Williams, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was listed as questionable after testing his sore right shoulder during Friday's practice.

Suddenly, all eyes are on a sometimes-inconsistent defense. It will be burdened with the task of forcing turnovers deep in Denver's territory or drastically affecting field position to shorten the field for a short-handed offense.

“Obviously, we're not a better team without AB (Brown),” Mitchell said. “Everyone will have to step up, but we would have had to do that regardless. We have a very tough task ahead of us.

“Denver is the No. 1 seed for a reason. They have (quarterback) Peyton Manning. They have a hostile environment. They have the elevation. They have a lot of things going in their favor, so it isn't going to be easy.

“We are going to have to play our best game defensively. It's going to take four quarters — all 60 minutes.”

The defense took the first half off in a 34-27 victory over the Broncos at Heinz Field in Week 15.

Linebacker Lawrence Timmons said the defense must step it up a notch. He added there is no room to err or to commit costly lapses in concentration, which caused them to surrender 27 points in the first half to a Denver team that moved the ball almost effortlessly behind backup quarterback Brock Osweiler.

“We have to play a whole game, because a lot depends on how we play,” Timmons said. “We did all the necessary things this week, so it's all about putting it on the grass.

“Everyone says that defense wins championships. So, we're in a situation where we have to make our own recipe for winning, especially when the offense is missing a couple of dynamic players.”

Cornerback Ross Cockrell looked around the Steelers locker room and pointed toward the player he believes will energize both the offense and defense.

“We still have a Super Bowl (winner), so we aren't panicking,” said Cockrell, motioning toward Roethlisberger. “But you can't replace a guy like AB. He's like a super hero to us, and we'll do all we can to win this game for him.”

The Steelers, of course, are hoping to be Manning's kryptonite. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler hopes to have devised a game plan that will make Manning look ordinary, as he often did before injuries sidelined him for several weeks before he relieved Osweiler in the regular-season finale against San Diego.

“We have to have confidence in what we're doing,” Cockrell said. “One thing we have to do if we can't get turnovers is affect field position. If we pin them inside the 10-yard line, we have to limit them to a three-and-out. It's the little things that are huge in a game like this, a game in which we're missing the best receiver in the NFL.”

Defensively, the Steelers can't be overzealous against Manning. They must pick and choose when to gamble in coverage. Still, they feel it's imperative to aid a usually explosive offense.

“I don't think we have to press because we believe in ourselves,” Mitchell said. “The more Ben has the ball, the better.”

Clearly, the defense wants to impact field position. It doesn't have to score points, but it certainly has to shorten the field for an offense dealing with adversity.

“If the game comes down to the defense, we have to be prepared to make things happen,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “It's the playoffs, so it's about being physical and making sure we balance out the offense.”

“There's always pressure on our defense,” Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “We're on a mission, and we're moving in one body. We understand there's going to be adversity, but we have to keeping chopping wood and believe in ourselves even when things look bad.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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