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Broncos look to avoid road to nowhere in Pittsburgh

As heavy underdog, Broncos must pass to pull off upset
Posted at 4:39 PM, Sep 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-20 12:24:04-04

ENGLEWOOD -- In the salad days of Peyton Manning, the location of games required little attention. The Broncos could win anywhere with Manning under center. And that's one of the things lost as the Broncos searched for his replacement before settling on the seventh candidate, Drew Lock.

The Broncos went 22-10 in visiting parks from 2012-2015. In the four years since, they are 10-22, a record that explains why they haven't reached the postseason since winning Super Bowl 50.

When a team descends from the elite, all games away from home become Herculean tasks. Sunday is no different as the Broncos open their road season at Pittsburgh. Denver boasts a 6-5 record in the Steel City, but hasn't won there since 2006. The Broncos arrive at Heinz Field as a seven-point underdog, per Westgate Sports Book.

So how do the Broncos avoid back-to-back seasons with 0-2 starts -- only 11 percent of the teams since 2007 have reached the playoffs after going winless in the opening two weeks -- and pull off the upset?

Glad you asked. My Denver7 keys to victory:

Throw caution to the wind
Or is it throw caution to win? The Broncos cannot afford to play conservatively on offense. Field goals lose road games. Running the football can level the odds by eating the clock. But there's no reason to think the Broncos can establish the run against the Steelers after they limited the Giants to 29 yards on 20 attempts. Drew Lock will need to win this game. Dinks, dunks -- hello Melvin Gordon -- and no deep strikes missed.

Think fast
With Courtland Sutton returning from a sprained right shoulder, the Broncos will feature a diverse passing attack. Jerry Jeudy aims to rebound after his two-drop debut, and there's every reason to believe he will. He can win one-on-ones. And rookie slot receiver K.J. Hamler will make his pro debut. I would use him three-wide sets, and on a few gadgets, like a reverse. Sutton is a security blanket for Lock, and he will be needed against the Steelers pressure. Lock has only been sacked five times in the past six games, the fewest in the NFL during that span.

Who knows how this game will turn out, but I can tell you how it will if the Broncos don't recognize and utilize their speed.

High and tight
Noah Fant was the Broncos' best receiver in the opener making five catches for 81 years. None, however, came in the second half. Fant must be a point of emphasis. Even if Sutton plays -- an argument exists to let him heal another week to be available for the long haul -- the Pro Bowler will be limited. Fant represents a tough matchup over the middle for a linebacker or safety. Use him on drag routes and as the first option on bootlegs. Did I mention that passing holds the key to victory after the Steelers allowed 279 yards and two touchdowns to the Giants' Daniel Jones. Teams scored a record 87 touchdowns in Week 1. The Broncos have to set their goal at 23 points to have a chance.

Line'em up, knock'em down
The Steelers are operating with backups in the middle of their offensive line. They are vulnerable. I know it is not coach Vic Fangio's nature, but the Broncos need to blitz more with inside linebacker Alexander Johnson. A big hit could turn into a huge pick. That's the only way the Broncos are stunning Pittsburgh by creating a short field with a pair of turnovers.

Take it away, now
Had Michael Ojemudia's interception stood on Monday, the Broncos likely win the game. That's the issue of playing low-scoring affairs. Every mistake is amplified. It was negated by a questionable personal foul against Johnson. Justin Simmons had a chance for an INT, but couldn't secure it. Ben Roethlisberger will give the Broncos opportunities, testing Ojemudia and rookie Essang Bassey. When they show up, whether it's a tip or a forced pass, they cannot miss.

Special occasion
Road triumphs require aberrations, like fumbles on punt returns. Dionate Johnson is shaky fielding punts for the Steelers. This must be exploited, and the Broncos are finally capable because of stellar punter Sam Martin. He is a huge upgrade, and can pin the Steelers or force Johnson into difficult choices.

Feel the urgency
It's easy to rationalize a slow start for a young offense with no preseason. But let's keep it real. Next week's game is not much easier, where the Broncos are already installed as a heavy underdog to Tom Brady and the Bucs. Brady has struggled in Denver, but having a must-win game against him is no way to live. Make life easier by following the Nuggets lead. No one expects the Broncos to win so play with freedom.

Renck's Pick: Steelers 23, Broncos 16.

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