Denver Broncos: Scouting report for matchup vs. Steelers

Denver Broncos defensive lineman Shelby Harris. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Broncos defensive lineman Shelby Harris. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Broncos are set to take on the 1-3 Pittsburgh Steelers aiming for a bounce-back win after a 23-7 loss to another AFC North team in the Ravens, here is a scouting report ahead of the matchup.  

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been stifled by a largely unproductive offense led by the deteriorating play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. A year removed from an impressive 12-4 record, they are on pace for their worst season in years and first losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers are comfortably one of the worst offenses in the league, with a -0.14 total offensive EPA. Their issues begin and end with Ben Roethlisberger. Once a feared gunslinger who would attack any part of the field, Roethlisberger is now a timid and conservative passer who doesn’t trust his arm and only attacks the sidelines of the field with out-breaking routes, rarely ever fitting the ball into tight windows in the middle of the field.

The Denver Broncos are well suited to defend this new-look offense, with cornerbacks like Pat Surtain, Kyle Fuller, and Ronald Darby who have the ability to read and react while driving to the point of attack aiming to make a play on the ball.

Not only is the passing offense struggling to find its footing, the rushing attack is just as unproductive. Tied for the 6th-worst total in the league, they bring a -0.164 rush EPA to the field on Sunday.

The Steelers are a primarily inside zone rushing team, using the concept more than twice as much as any other with the exception of counter.

Inside zone is a running play that specializes in giving the running back options at the line of scrimmage to decide from. The back can either follow the frontside flow of the blocking, take it downhill or bounce it back the opposite way depending on the holes that are presented. The lineman flow in unison at a 45° angle.

Expect Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio to employ the same general philosophy he has for most of his coaching tenure, soft coverage with cornerbacks playing 5-7 yards off the wide receiver enticing the offense to check the ball down and take the boring option.

Defensively, the Steelers aren’t the juggernaut they were a year ago, but they are still a tough unit to prepare for and play against. The main worry for offenses game-planning against them is edge rusher T.J. Watt.

Watt is a game wrecker and he has shown no signs of slowing down. He has at least one sack in each game he has played in, with 13 pressures on the year. Going against a tackle in Bobby Massie, who struggles with speed around the edge, he may be poised for a very disruptive game.

Schematically the defense is a base 3-4 (three down lineman, four linebackers) team cycling between Cover 2 and Cover 3. When in cover 2, a two-deep five-under coverage, the field is split into halves between the two safeties with the corners often jamming the receivers then sinking to the flats.

To combat this, offenses tend to take advantage of the flat defenders putting them in conflict with a route to the flat, and a route to the void behind them and in front of the safety. The corner’s assignment will always be the flat in cover 2, but they also have to gain depth to get into the throwing window of any routes close behind them.

A concept like Smash, which is most commonly used to beat cover 2, puts the corner in that exact bind with a hitch or flat route in front of them, and a seven (or corner) route behind them. He either gains depth to take away the corner route or sinks to take away the flat. The quarterback reads him and throws to whichever route he leaves open.

As mentioned before, the safeties split the field into halves. In this case, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is a very instinctual player and jumps at the opportunity to undercut any routes, leaving him susceptible to offenses looking to take advantage of that.

Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur should have some plays in the game plan this week to do just that. A common concept to take advantage of hyperactive safeties in a two-high structure is Scissors.

Scissors has two receivers running to the same depth, with the outside receiver breaking at10-12 yards into a post route, and the inside receiver breaking at 10-12 yards into a corner route. The 3 safety is caught in another bind having to choose either the post route, leaving the corner open, or the corner, leaving the post open.

The Denver Broncos are heading into what could be perceived as a must-win game, even this early into the season. These are some things to keep an eye out for in this pivotal game.