When one talks about potential pivotal matchups heading into Sunday night’s game, it is hard not to focus on the upcoming battle between Pittsburgh’s patch-work Offensive Line and Denver’s stout Pass Rush. While many might consider Pittsburgh’s Offense to be at a distinct disadvantage against Denver’s Defense, the Steelers’ are not technically in trouble. In fact, the Steelers should be able to pit one of their most potent Offensive strengths against one of the Broncos’ most glaring Defensive weaknesses. Thus, today I would like to discuss how and why Pittsburgh’s Inside/Slot Pass Catchers could be primed to have some solid performances against Denver’s Linebackers/Safeties/Subpackage Corners.
Steelers’ Deep Receiving Corps Can Win the Day
Do the Packers, Eagles, and Patriots deserve kudos for being absolutely stacked at the Tight End and Wide Receiver positions? Absolutely, and there are few, if any, teams in the League which can compete with them in terms of the amount of depth each possesses in the pass-catcher personnel department. Like these teams I described above though, the Steelers have quietly been able to build one of League’s most potent groups of pass-catchers over the last few seasons.
On the outside, the Steelers have speed, speed, and more speed with their Pro Bowlers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. There are few in the game which can match Wallace as a deep threat option. Since Wallace came into the League in 2009, the former Ole Miss Rebel has logged 171 Catches for 3,206 Yards (18.7 YPC), and caught 24 Touchdowns. Not to be outdone by his teammate, 2010 6th Round pick Antonio Brown had himself a monster 2011 campaign when he set the team record for All-Purpose Yards (2,211 Total) in a season. Brown will inevitably be asked to do even more on Offense this season as a Receiver and has been nothing but stellar during the preseason period (3 TD’s).
Do not get me wrong, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown will be big factors in the Offensive strategy and have the ability to create splash plays. But what Pro Bowl Tight End Heath Miller (51 Catches, 631 Yards, 2 TD’s), and slot guys Jerricho Cotchery (16 Catches, 237 Yards, 2 TD’s) and Emmanuel Sanders (22 Catches, 288 Yards, 2 TD’s) can do well is hurt teams between the hashes. All three players not only possess solid hands (Miller’s are the best on the team), but Cotchery is a savvy route-runner and blocker that is not afraid to go over the middle, and Sanders has the perfect slot man combination of agility, route-running ability, and hands which have made him such an effective weapon when he has been on the field and healthy during his first two seasons.
But why exactly are Miller, Cotchery, and Sanders going to be such important factors during Sunday’s game? Well, as I stated before, it has everything to do with Denver’s Pass Defense. And this is where the Broncos’ weaknesses and inexperience at defending the pass in the middle of the field can help the Steelers.
Denver’s Defensive Issues
Due to the amount of pass catching options Big Ben has at his disposal, all of Denver’s Defensive personnel must be ready to neutralize the Steelers’ passing game. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they will be without the services of Linebacker D.J. Williams (suspension) and veteran Safety Brian Dawkins (retired). Sure, Denver might still have future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, and apparently the Tracy Porter acquisition is supposed to be an upgrade at the #2 Cornerback spot. But if Denver is forced into sub-packages with multiple Receiver sets, Bailey and Porter will have their hands full with Wallace and Brown. Not an easy task for any starting Cornerback combination across the League. Because of this, the Broncos will have to rely on some younger and somewhat inexperienced players to protect the middle of the field against the Steelers’ slot guys and Heath Miller.
In sub-packages at the Cornerback position, players like Rookie Omar Bolden and 2nd Year man Chris Harris will be forced into action for Denver. And I am pretty sure Big Ben would much rather look in their direction for some easy space than challenging Bailey all night long. Without Dawkins, the Broncos are not exactly setting the world afire at the Safety position though either. If the Steelers ramp up the passing game in the middle of the field or deep, Denver will have to rely on the possibly hobbled Quinton Carter, the inconsistent and sometimes torched Rahim Moore, and newly acquired journeyman Mike Adams. As for the Linebackers, all I can say is “good luck” to Joe Mays and backup Wesley Woodyard in their attempts to stop Heath Miller and keep the seams clear of big plays.
All I have to say is that the Broncos had better hope that their Pass Defense has improved personnel-wise in 2012, because it was not like they were absolute juggernauts against the pass over the entirety of last season either. Denver is coming off of a year in which the team only recorded 9 total Interceptions (T-31st in the League), 18 Total Takeaways (T-29th), ranked 18th in Total Passing Yards allowed (232 per game), and gave up a 62.4% Completion Percentage to their opponents (24th). But not only were the Broncos mediocre to subpar against the pass last season, the Patriots exposed Denver’s most glaring weakness during their Divisional Playoff win at Foxborough last January.
The Patriots were the ones which ate Denver alive between the hashes that night as Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker had their way with the Linebackers, Safeties, and sub-package Cornerbacks. Brady dinked and dunked and ripped holes through the Broncos’ Secondary as he stretched them to their breaking point to the tune of 6 Touchdowns through the air. Best of all, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were kept in check by New England’s quick attack over the middle, and this was against a Patriots Offensive Line which was in the midst of a down season.
With the Patriots in mind, if the Steelers want to keep Big Ben upright and get the ball out of his hands as fast as possible, his options in the slot and at Tight End should be the best places for him to look. And remember Steelers fans, it was Sanders (6 Catches for 81 yards) and Miller (5 Catches for 60 Yards) which enjoyed solid statistical days against the Broncos last January, and it was Cotchery who got open and extended the play for the game-tying Touchdown. These guys have had success against this Secondary before, and should hopefully receive plenty of chances to shine if Roethlisberger does not want to be pummeled.
My hope is that “Boss Todd” Haley and Roethlisberger (not playing on one leg in this game) can take something away from the A.F.C. Divisional Playoff last season and employ it into this weekend’s game. I mean, what better way to take the home crowd out of the game than constantly picking at the opponent’s weakness until the Steelers’ other Offensive weapons are freed up to do damage? I know that I will be interested to see how Todd Haley uses his pass catchers this season, and I hope that he can use the Patriots and what they did as an example for this Sunday night’s contest. While the advantage in Pittsburgh’s favor might not be discussed, it does in fact exist. And if the Broncos are not ready to bring their collective “A Game” against the Steelers’ entire group of pass catchers, it could very well be a long night for the Denver Defense.
Speak up “Steeler Nation:” Do you think Pittsburgh will try to employ a similar strategy as the one that New England did against the Broncos? Will Haley focus on the running game more? Can the Line hold up long enough even for quick passes from the Shotgun?
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Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com