It’s safe to say that Steelers v Broncos is probably one of the games this week across the NFL where the outcome is loaded with uncertainties. How will Peyton Manning size up against the Steeler defense in his first game back since 2010? How will the aging (and slightly beat up) defense fair against a potentially explosive quarterback in Manning? Will Mike Wallace be ready after his long hold out? Will Pittsburgh’s offensive line scrap together enough blocks to keep Ben Roethlisberger from losing his head? Is this a redemption game? Oh yeah, who wins?
Both teams have yet to be fully tested prior to the opening week. Both teams are still trying to fine tune their defenses after the installation of new and the injuries of veterans have left both teams jockeying around their rosters. The Steelers will use multiple running backs on Sunday because of multiple injuries throughout the running back roster. The Broncos offense, even with a promising showing by Peyton against the 49′ers, is still a bit in question. So who gets everything to click enough to take home the victory?
Steelers Offense v Broncos Defense
Todd Haley’s offense will come out in full force this Sunday against the Broncos. No more ‘vanilla.’ Expect that offense to consist of a balance between the run and quick passes to ease the pressure off the offensive line. There will come a turning point in the middle of the first half where I think Haley will begin to shift his focus on the middle of the field. Heath Miller, Leonard Pope, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders will become very important at that point. The Broncos will be forced to keep linebackers in the middle of the field and pinch in the safeties in order to contain the TE’s and any wide outs performing crossing routes. That will lead to one of two things: 1) A big play across the middle as the Broncos zone tries to defend potentially three to four receivers exchanging positions across the middle or 2) A big play down the sidelines as Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter will be forced into one on one coverage. Will both be able to contain Wallace AND Brown every time there’s one on one? Doubtful. Those Bronco sub-packages will take a toll on the defense, and the Steelers should be able to capitalize on those opportunities.
Expect the Steelers to work on time of possession to keep the ball out of Peyton’s hands and make the most of their possessions. That offensive line? It’s not like the Steelers haven’t dealt with crisis at the line before. In fact, they aren’t really in dire straights. Gilbert, Foster, Pouncey, Colon and Starks are a decent combination and should contain ‘just enough’ for Big Ben to make some key throws down the field.
Steelers Defense v Broncos Offense
Redemption? Far from it. But, the Steelers defense will certainly be placing an emphasis on stopping the Broncos offense early and often. The Broncos and their Peyton Manning offense will look more like the Indianapolis Colts of 2009 as they use three wide receiver sets and no huddle play calling often. Manning may be on a new team, but it’s still his offense. This could pose a challenge to the Steelers in the mile high altitude. Ryan Clark is out because of his sickle cell condition, which means Ryan Mundy will fill the Free Safety position. James Harrison is being ruled out and numerous players on the defensive line and linebacker spots are injured in some form or another. This looks like a recipe for a disastrous outcome – but don’t be fooled by the injury list.
The Steelers will blitz early and often, and LeBeau will put every wrinkle in he can to disguise those schemes. As the Steelers have proven in other contests with Peyton – get enough pressure in the pocket and Peyton struggles. Backup LB Chris Carter has performed beautifully during the preseason while James Harrison recovered from his injury. LaMarr Woodley also appears to be back in his Pro Bowl form. Those two will be key in the success of this defense. The Steelers will rely heavily on the outside blitzes and Carter’s and Woodley’s ability to put pressure on Manning. That will set the tone to open up blitzing for the inside as the Broncos offensive line will try and get extra protection to the outsides. The Broncos will also need to commit Willis McGahee for pass protection, thus taking him out of the running back screen game. The No. 1 pass defense from last season will look to continue its strong performance with Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis covering Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. And what happens if the Broncos go to three wide? The Steelers and Steeler Nation should feel a bit more at ease with Cortez Allen having a very solid preseason as the nickel back and being named the starter early on. They will all be tested often by the arm of Manning, but I expect them to keep that in check for the majority of the game. And what about Troy Polamalu? Expect him to be all over the field as usual as the ‘X Back’ on just about every play. He’ll blitz from the middle, he’ll blitz from the edge, he’ll drop back and help Lewis or Taylor. Polamalu participated in OTA’s and the other mini’s this season when he usually doesn’t. It wasn’t like Troy really needed the conditioning, but there does appear to be a bit of extra spring in his step this year – which could have resulted from the extra preparation. The Steelers coaching staff said they were upset over the lack of splash plays from the defense last season and that it would become a focus this year. Peyton has been known to force a pass or two and the Steelers will jump on those opportunities.
This will be far from a lopsided contest. In fact it should be the best game all week in the NFL – lucky it’s on primetime. Both offenses will find their way into the endzone a couple of times, but not without some bumps along the way. The game will stay close until the Pittsburgh D smothers the Bronco offense for good in the 4th quarter. The Broncos weak middle on defense and the Steeler’s execution over the middle and deep will prove too much for the Broncos to overcome. The Steelers defense will frustrate Peyton’s return to the ring, and will get a turnover or two as a result.
Final score: Steelers 27 Broncos 17