ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — To think, Broncos linebacker Justin Strnad was 8 years old – the birth year for so many blossoming, diehard, sports fans – when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger posted a 13-0 regular-season record as an NFL rookie. And Strnad was 9 when Big Ben beat the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship Game and went on to win his first Super Bowl.
Strnad, 25, has so far gone up against quarterbacks younger than him in Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and, yes, Lamar Jackson, who is still only 24. But to play against Big Ben on Sunday, a quarterback he’s watched on TV through his impressionable teenage years?
“It’s going to be awesome,’’ Strnad said in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS this week. “I grew up a huge sports fans in general. So playing against somebody who’s probably going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer is awesome. I’ve got a couple friends who are diehard Steelers fans so it’d be sick to get an interception or something against him. But I’m just looking forward to going out there, playing well, executing and helping this team win this week.”
Pronounced Stir-NAD, Justin became the Broncos’ starting inside linebacker both sooner than expected and after a yearlong delay. Sooner because starter Josey Jewell suffered a season-ending torn biceps injury in the second quarter of the Broncos’ second game this season at Jacksonville.
“It kind of happened fast,’’ Strnad said. “I got thrown into the fire when Josey went down. Just taking it a day at a time.”
But his playing time was delayed because after he was selected in the fifth round of the Broncos’ 2020 draft following his fifth-year senior season at Wake Forest, Strnad suffered a season-ending wrist injury in his rookie training camp last year.
“Just a normal camp day at practice. I took on (fullback Andrew) Beck in the hole,’’ Strnad said. “I guess my wrist was at the focal point of our contact. Team period. I knew something was up after the play but I tried to stick it out a little bit. I happened to go get a drink and felt my wrist dislocate while I was drinking so I went to the trainers and we obviously had to go inside and things were messed up.”
It was so messed up, emergency surgery took place a couple hours later.
“There was a lot of pressure on some nerves,’’ he said. “So they wanted to go in and do it that day. That part wasn’t painful because I was asleep but prior to that we were trying to put it back in place a couple times. That was kind of painful but there was so much adrenaline at that time it kind of just happened.”
Strnad has started the last two games alongside veteran inside linebacker Alexander Johnson and will do so a third time Sunday against the Steelers in Heinz Field (kickoff, 11 a.m. MDT). Strnad is playing about 80 percent of the defensive snaps and has 12 tackles on the year but he has made his mark through his range. Taller than most inside linebackers at 6-foot-3, Strnad also has sideline-to-sideline speed. Coverage is his strength and tight ends are his frequent assignment. It’s been a while since the Broncos have had an asset like Strnad because tight ends have been the bane of the Denver D for years.
Speed helps a player catch up to a play but instincts and awareness help move a defender to the play before the ball carrier or tight end receiver gets there.
“Instincts are getting better every day,’’ Strnad said. “Especially in a league like this there’s so many different things that happen on the field from an offensive perspective. And this defense, coach (Vic) Fangio’s defense, there’s a lot of moving parts in coverage and run fit. So the more reps I get I feel like the more comfortable I’m going to get.”
Dad has been there
Through unfortunate circumstance made good, Strnad has an extremely close relationship with his dad Shawn. He was raised in Tarpon Springs. Fla, near Clearwater.
“Grew up with mom and dad and an older brother and a younger sister,’’ Strnad said. “As I got older mom battled with drugs and alcohol. My sophomore year in high school my mom kind of left our family. And it’s been my dad, older brother and younger sister ever since and everyone’s doing good.”
After compiling three sacks, three interceptions and 81 tackles as a senior at East Lake High School in Tarpon, Strnad was in demand. He had several Division I football scholarship offers, including from Illinois and Iowa State, but Wake Forest became the choice.
“My dad was part of that decision,’’ Strnad said. “He wanted me to get a great education on top of football. Wake was a school that one, I felt comfortable with when I visited, and two, I thought it was a school that would give me a good opportunity when football is done to do something that I love and it was a great combination of education and high-level football.”
He earned his degree in communications.
“Two things that I’m interested in doing after football is,’’ Strnad said as he looked around his interview surroundings with 9News, “something not exactly like this but covering sports. Or working in the front office for a team.”
So far, dad, a longtime manager of a car dealership, has been able to attend Strnad’s games.
“He’s one of my biggest supporters,’’ he said. “He’s been at these last two games that I’ve played. He leaves work on a Saturday. He’ll even fly in Sunday morning. He’s done that for a long time. He makes every game he can. He’s texting me right now seeing if he can make it to Pittsburgh. Him and my brother and my sister are my biggest supporters.”
Big Ben and the Steelers
After losing last week to the Baltimore Ravens, the 3-1 Broncos could use a win against the Steelers, who are 1-3. This is nearly the same Steelers’ team that started 11-0 last season so the Broncos are not treating their opponent like a pushover.
“They’ve got a ton of weapons, Strnad said. “All their receivers are good. They’ve got JuJu (Smith-Schuster), Diontae (Johnson) and (Chase) Claypool. And their tight ends are athletic. They drafted Pat Freiermuth out of Penn State in the second round and they have (Eric) Ebron, who’s a former first-round pick out of North Carolina. And then obviously they have Big Ben running it and they drafted (running back) Najee Harris this year in the first round.’’
He sounded almost like a devoted sports fan who knows his stuff as much as a linebacker who studies tape.
“They’ve got plenty of talent,’’ Strnad said. “Their offensive line is good. It’s going to be on us to do our job defensively and come out there and execute.”