Coming off of a statement victory in New York last Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Denver Broncos in their 2020 home opener. Heinz Field, normally deafening with crazed fans waving their Terrible Towels, will be empty due to the COVID-19 protocols the city of Pittsburgh released. In between the lines, however, nothing will change. Big Ben Roethlisberger, along with his ferocious defense, will meet a young and talented Broncos squad led by HC Vic Fangio. The battle taking place right at the convergence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers will feature many key individual matchups, but none will likely impact the outcome of the game more than the ones listed below. Let’s dive in.
1. Steelers WRs vs, CBs Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemudia
With #1 CB AJ Bouye sidelined with a shoulder injury, it will be up to Callahan and Ojemudia to limit a talented Pittsburgh WR core. The new top CB for Denver will be the veteran Callahan, who has plenty of experience with HC Vic Fangio dating back to their time together in Chicago. He will be tasked with defending the outside of the field, something he is not particularly accustomed to. The 28-year-old has found most of his success in the NFL as a slot corner, but with long-time Bronco Chris Harris Jr.’s departure and Bouye’s injury, he is given no choice but to play on the outside. Callahan is undersized for a top CB, but his performance against Tennessee week 1 proved he is capable. Opposite him will be Michael Ojemudia, who will be playing in just his second-ever NFL game. Stopping wideouts such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson is a tall task for the 2020 third-round pick, and the Steelers playmakers should present a mismatch for the Iowa product. QB Ben Roethlisberger will be looking to exploit the two CBs on Sunday, and he hopes to find success in doing so.
2. RT Chukwuma Okorafor and RG Kevin Dotson vs. DE Jurrell Casey
Transitioning to the other side of the ball, the Broncos will look to take advantage of an unstable right side of the Pittsburgh offensive line. Following Zach Banner’s injury, the Steelers will call upon Chukwuma “Chuks” Okorafor to fill in at right tackle. Just as well, rookie Kevin Dotson will make his first career start as guards David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski are also unavailable for Sunday. There will be little room for error as they are set to square up against 5-time Pro Bowl DE Jurrell Casey. Casey had a strong debut as he tallied 6 tackles, defended 2 passes and got a hit on Titans QB Ryan Tannehill. He will strive to build off his strong performance and take advantage of the two inexperienced offensive linemen in between him and Roethlisberger. It is vital for Dotson and Okorafor to not only open up run lanes for the Steelers but also protect their franchise quarterback. Look for Pittsburgh to double team Casey throughout all four quarters. In addition, they will likely utilize TEs Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald to chip Casey and drop back into protection on pass plays.
3. Steelers pass rush vs. QB Drew Lock
The 2nd year quarterback out of Mizzou will make his 7th career start against an antagonizing Steelers defense on Sunday. With RB Philip Lindsay “out” for Sunday and WR Courtland Sutton listed as “questionable," Lock will have to utilize new teammates such as WR Jerry Jeudy and RB Melvin Gordon in order to put points on the board in Pittsburgh. The Steelers pass rush will look to make life difficult for the Broncos QB as they plan to continue their trend of dismantling any offensive line they are matched up against. Look for them to take advantage of rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry and 2nd-year guard Dalton Risner’s inexperience early and often. Also working in Pittsburgh’s favor is the news that LT Garrett Bowles has been limited all week in practice with an elbow injury. Drew Lock will not have nearly as much time as he did on Monday night to make throws, so he must be able to get the ball out quickly and limit mistakes. That is easier said than done, however, as the Pittsburgh defense led the NFL in sacks and takeaways just a year ago.
The Steelers are 7.5-point favorites against the Broncos Week 2. If they are able to win these 3 matchups, they should put themselves in a great position to improve their record to 2-0 for the first time since 2017.