The playoffs begin today for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they take on the Denver Broncos in the 2nd AFC Wild Card game of the weekend in Denver. With a win, the Steelers will move on to face the New England Patriots next Saturday. As I have done each and every week this season, here are my 7 things to look for against the Broncos. Also included is my score prediction for the game.
Seeing Red - Isaac Redman will make his second career start at running back now that Rashard Mendenhall was lost for the season last week with a torn ACL in his right knee. His first start came back in week 5 against the Tennessee Titans and he carried 15 times for 49 yards and chipped in another 12 yards on 3 catches. Redman fumbled twice last week against the Cleveland Browns in the 4th quarter and he needs to make sure he practices better ball security this week as turnovers are likely the only thing that will keep the Broncos in this game close. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians indicated that Redman could very well be the every down back in this game earlier in the week and said Redman will get rest when the Steelers defense is on the field. Redman does a great job running between the tackles and hardly ever goes down on first contact. It is his time to shine on Sunday and prove he is indeed an every down back.
Spread \'Em - The Broncos pass defense is very vulnerable when they are spread out and they once again will be without the services of safety Brian Dawkins, who will miss the game with a neck injury. Cornerback Champ Bailey figures to see Mike Wallace most of the day, but when the Steelers go four wide with Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, there should be plenty of mismatches to exploit should the Broncos play a lot of press-man coverage like they have throughout the season. These receivers must get off their jams quickly so quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not forced to hold the ball in the pocket as Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller will certainly get their pressures and perhaps devastating sacks.
Tebow Behind The Chains - The Broncos live and die on the running of running back Willis McGahee and quarterback Tim Tebow using various forms of the spread option. When they stay on schedule, and out of 3rd and long, is when they are at their best. When faced with 3rd and 5 or more, Tebow is 27 of 61 passing with a 5.7 yards per attempt. He has converted just 7 first downs and thrown just 3 touchdowns for a total of 10 conversions on 61 attempts. Tebow has rushed 24 times from 3rd and 5 or longer and converted just 5 of those into first downs. The onus of shutting down the run will fall on linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the outside to not get too deep, as to make sure they contain the edges. Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior need to quickly shed their blocks and hopefully fill the thin lanes caused by the front three holding the point of attack against several double teams.
Gambling Troy - Even though the Steelers will not have free safety Ryan Clark this week in the thin air of Denver, it still is the perfect game for strong safety Troy Polamalu to gamble and free lance as much as he wants to. Polamalu is the healthiest he has been this late in a season in some time and his ability to jump a gap or a route could play huge dividends in this game. The Steelers secondary can get away with man coverage and a single high safety against the Broncos receivers and Polamalu can do what he does best as a result of it. It would not be surprising to see him make as many as 5 splash plays in this game and each could really impact the game heavily.
No Ben Beating Ben - The Steelers are 5-0 this season when Roethlisberger does not throw an interception and they are 10-0 in games that he completes 57.5 or more of his passes. 2 of the Steelers 3 losses have come when he has thrown 3 interceptions. Not too surprising. With his mobility limited because of his ankle injury, he has not been able to step into all of his throws in the last 10 quarters of football. During that span he is 56 of 94 passing with just 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions. As long as he plays within himself, and does not turn the ball over, the Steelers should win this game.
Special Help From Madison - Another way to let the Broncos hang around is to give up a cheap kickoff return or punt return for a score or of huge length. They lost rookie cornerback Curtis Brown to a knee injury for the season a few weeks ago and fellow rookie cornerback Cortez Allen will sit this game out with a shoulder injury. Both had contributed greatly on special teams this season and their loss prompted the re-signing of Anthony Madison. Madison needs to live up to his Steelers legacy of being a special teams ace and the Broncos offense must not be given any short fields to work with.
Not Close In The 4th - The Broncos 4th quarter wins are well documented this season as teams have failed to put them away and let them hang around. Tebow is 63 of 117 with a 8.21 yards per attempt in 4th quarters this season and 6 of his 12 touchdown passes have come during that time. Tebow also has rushed for 6.6 yards per carry in 4th quarters this year and that is where he has rushed for half of his 6 running scores. The Steelers have to put the Broncos away early and get them out of their running game. This is when Tebow will likely make mistakes throwing and turn the ball over. All bets are off if this is a touchdown game entering the final 15 minutes of play.
Steelers Broncos Prediction - The Steelers are a heavy road favorite for a reason. The defense was tops in yards per play allowed and yards per game allowed. In addition they were tops against the pass and points allowed. The Broncos offensive attack does not revolve around the pass as they led the league in rushing yards per game and 6th in the league in rushing yards per play. 3rd down was the Broncos Achilles heal as they ranked 30th with a 30.84% conversion rate. Stop Tebow and McGahee on 1st and 2nd down most of the day and they will likely stall their drive as a result. The Steelers will have to beat themselves offensively and on special teams to lose this game and I just can\'t see that happening.
Final Score: Steelers 31 Broncos 10