I am so ready to be done talking about last year’s AFC Wild-Card loss to Denver that I’m considering banning any words that begin with the letter ‘D’ in my house. I’m tired of hearing about it and you’re tired of hearing about so imagine how guys like Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu feel.
There are many, many story-lines heading into the game against the Broncos (notice I didn’t say Denver there?) and most revolve around Peyton Manning and why wouldn’t they? Manning deserves all of the attention he gets as one of the all-time great passers in the league. Knowing what Tim Tebow did to the Steelers’ secondary last season, we should probably expect a career night from Manning right? Not necessarily as there is very little threat of Manning running an option which changes how the defense approaches the game.
I have looked at this game a million different ways and much of it comes back to Manning. Will he be the Manning of old? Can he hit those 15-yard outs and deep posts down the middle? How will he handle that first big regular season hit? While much will certainly pertain to Manning, there’s three key things I’m looking for in order to get the Steelers’ an opening day victory.
1. Can the Steelers’ Survive Without James Harrison? Harrison can say all he wants to that he is ready to go for the game, but he missed the final two practices and most expect him to sit out. While I wouldn’t be shocked to see him give it a try, look for his OLB spot to be occupied by Chris Carter and Jason Worilds. Both men are decent pass rushers and I would give the edge against the run to Worilds. The problem of course with Worilds is he has seen as little action as Harrison as he has been recovering from a wrist injury. No one can audible at the line of scrimmage like Peyton Manning can and if they have any success running in that direction I would look for Manning to continue that. This opportunity has been there for Carter throughout the preseason and he will now have his chance to show what he can do in a real game.
2. Can the Offensive Line Contain Dumervil and Miller? Remember the excitement back in April when the Steelers drafted David DeCastro and Mike Adams with their first two picks in the NFL Draft? Ya well, neither of them will be in the starting line-up this weekend. That means Ramon Foster at right guard and Max Starks at left tackle. Starks and right tackle Marcus Gilbert will be challenged all night long by Broncos’ sack artists Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
New Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley will take steps to limit Dumervil and Miller coming off the edge. You should see screens, draws and a number of three-step drops by Ben Roethlisberger early in the game in an attempt to slow these guys down. That doesn’t mean you won’t see some deep throws because Mike Wallace may be a bit rusty but he can still run. If Starks and Gilbert can hold up, it opens up the playbook. Also look for the running backs and tight ends to chip when necessary on both rushers.
3. The Steelers Secondary Needs a Short Memory Last year of course we know what happened and even though Manning is a much different monster, the Steelers’ secondary needs to move forward and focus on the task before them. Ike Taylor said he didn’t sleep well in the days following the loss and who could blame him? Taylor should return to form and have a better game this time around. Opposite him however will be Keenan Lewis in his first true start as a ‘starter.’
Lewis is a solid corner with good fundamentals but he isn’t going to make anyone forget Rod Woodson. If he can play well against either DeMaryius Thomas or Eric Decker, that will allow Dick LeBeau more options in terms of what he can do defensively. With 2nd year man Cortez Allen in the nickel, it allows LeBeau a chance to get pressure off the edge with him and put him on the slot receiver or tight end. The biggest issue in the secondary will be Ryan Mundy who will start in place of Ryan Clark. Mundy was not always cautious last season in the playoff game and neither was Polamalu for that matter either. Both guys tended to be up at the line of scrimmage too much in my opinion.
The fact that Manning and not Tebow is the quarterback in this match-up should help keep both Polamalu and Mundy deep. Don’t mistake this for saying that Troy won’t be up to the line at times because that’s how he plays with the freedom he is given by LeBeau, but he must be more disciplined.
If the Steelers can get passing grades in these three key areas then I have no doubt they will have everything in place to get a huge road victory in Colorado. Notice I didn’t say the ‘D’ word again?
Prediction: Steelers 23 Broncos 20