In case you didn’t hear, the Steelers are the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs, and they are traveling to Denver on Sunday. This means a date with Tim Tebow and the Broncos (but a clandestine date, nothing Tebow’s parents wouldn’t approve of). Will the Steelers be able to shut down Tebow’s mystifying ability to either run for a few yards or throw a pass between two receivers at will? Can Ben Roethlisberger build a lead large enough that the Steelers’ ability to give up fourth-quarter TD drives won’t be taken advantage of by anyone named Tim Tebow or Demaryius Thomas? I will attempt to answer those questions in our first-round preview.
Steelers Offense vs. Broncos Defense
Obviously, Tim Tebow doesn’t play on defense (though I can understand your confusion on this point if you listen to Skip Bayless), but the Denver defenders, especially Von Miller, will have a large effect on determining whether Tebow gets the credit for winning this game. The Broncos have given up 24.4 points per game, which is in the bottom third of the NFL, and the advanced stats mostly bear this out. They rank 18th in weighted DVOA (24th in passing, 13th in rushing). Advanced NFL Stats ranks them 17th on defense (20th in passing, 16th in rushing). Either way, their pass defense is markedly worse, which plays into the Steelers’ strength, since they’re without Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers have been equally good at rushing and passing, at least according to Football Outsiders (7th in DVOA for both). The two key situations that will determine whether the Steelers put up tons of points in Denver will be third downs and red zone plays. Both the Steelers offense and the Broncos defense are fourth in the NFL in third down conversion percentage (45.9% for the Steelers and 33.5% for the Broncos), and they are both 8th in third down DVOA. Meanwhile, both teams’ weaknesses when Pittsburgh has the ball are in the red zone. The Steelers rank 21st in red zone DVOA, while the Broncos rank 28th. If the Steelers can break through in those two situations, they will build up a lead not even Tim Tebow can come back from.
Broncos Offense (Tebow) vs. Steelers Defense
Speaking of Tim Tebow, the fate of the Broncos offense will depend on the famous Tebow legs (and those of Willis McGahee), as well as whatever surprise long drives Tebow can muster in the fourth quarter. Tebow’s legs have produced 5.4 yards per rush attempt, which ties him for fourth in the NFL, only behind Cam Newton, Fred Jackson, and DeMarco Murray. However, despite Tebow’s six rushing TDs, he doesn’t seem to rush for many first downs, as Tebow’s rushing DVOA of -16.8% (meaning 16.8% below that of an average rusher) ranks 34th out of 41 qualifying QBs. Tebow seems to run the ball when things appear dire, which is a lot of the time, so even though Tebow gets a lot of rushing yards, those yards often are followed by a punt. Meanwhile, McGahee’s rushing DVOA is 7.0%, a very solid 16th among qualifying RBs. The Steelers rank 15th in rush defense DVOA, their first time out of the top ten since 2002. Their ability to control McGahee’s running (and to some extent Tebow’s) will determine whether the Broncos can best the 14.2 points per game the Steelers have allowed this season (first in the NFL). Why have I focused on Tebow’s (and McGahee’s) running ability? Their overall passing game ranks low by any measure. Football Outsiders ranks them 26th in passing DVOA, while Advanced NFL Stats ranks them 29th in passing efficiency. Tebow himself ranks 37th out of 47 qualifying QBs with a -18.3% DVOA. The only things Broncos fans can hang their hats on offensively are red zone and late-and-close situations. Their passing DVOA jumps to 18th in the red zone, while the offense’s late-and-close DVOA ranks 9th, mostly thanks to Tebow. The Steelers defense ranks fourth in late-and-close situations, a stat that may surprise some Steeler fans. Mostly, though, the Steelers defense has a huge advantage (even with the loss of Ryan Clark) over Tebow and the Broncos offense.
There isn’t much of note on special teams (and no, I’m just saying that because Tebow doesn’t play on special teams). Shaun Suisham has ranked fourth in the NFL with 8.3 points above average on kickoffs, a stat that certainly surprised me when I saw it. The Broncos’ special teams strength is their punt returns (mostly Eddie Royal), ranking fourth at 8.2 points above average, so the Steelers’ best strategy on special teams will be to not have to punt. But if they do, Jeremy Kapinos has been solid this year, so it probably won’t make a difference.
In my opinion, there will be two possible outcomes in this game. In the first, the Steelers quietly demolish the Broncos, holding McGahee and Tebow in check, taking a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter, and intercepting 2 or 3 Tebow passes in that quarter to end the game with a 31-10 or 38-17 win. In the other, Von Miller has five sacks in the first three quarters and the Denver defense has a great performance to keep the score at something like 14-10. In this case, Phil Simms will mention the name Tebow thirty times, Jim Nantz will mention Tebow 25 times (though he kind of has to), Steelers fans will probably have a sick feeling in their stomachs, with memories of Week 9 against the Ravens stuck in their heads, and thinking to themselves, “Why does Tebow have to be so religious?” The longer the Broncos and Tebow stay within one possession, the better chance they have to win (there’s my John Madden impression for the day). However, I think the first scenario is much more likely, because as Bam said on Twitter Saturday night, it’s a passing league now, and Roethlisberger is much better than Tebow in that regard. Steelers 31, Broncos 17.
Final “Tebow” Count (Including This One): 30. Success!