By Jeremy Hritz
The season, thankfully, is finally here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are completing their preparations for their first opponent in the Denver Broncos. What better way to start the season than in prime time on Sunday Night Football against the team that bounced them from the playoffs this past year.
So how will this game shake out?
The Steelers Will Win This Game If…
There are two areas of concern I have about the Steelers heading into the season, one being the offensive line, two being the defensive line and the rushing defense. While preseason is not a true indication of a team’s potential during the regular season, there was not much to feel optimistic about as Ben Roethlisberger was frequently pressured, and opponents’ defensive lineman were in the backfield regularly, disrupting the development of running plays. While Marcus Gilbert played well last year, he was not impressive in preseason, and Willie Colon and Ramon Foster were average at best as well. Factor in Max Starks who is just returning from a torn ACL, and what you have are too many question marks and too much uncertainty. This is not to condemn the offensive line, but in order to control the clock on the ground, they desperately need to get a better push, and if Roethlisberger is to take advantage of his outstanding receivers, he is going to need time. If the O-line gets it done, I like the Steelers chances.
Additionally, the Steelers struggled to stop the run last season, and this year, with the potential absence of James Harrison, the age and wear on Casey Hampton, and the lack of depth at inside linebacker, the Steelers need to show that the issues that they had last year have been addressed. With Ziggy Hood now assuming a starting position, and with Steve McLendon getting more snaps at nose tackle, the hope is that the youth will result in better play. If Chris Carter does in fact start over Harrison, he will need to show that he can effectively play the run and not over pursue and give up the big run. Most importantly, the Steelers need to stay healthy in the middle, as one injury could make it a very long season for the interior of the defense.
Most would be worried about the secondary matching up against Peyton Manning and his receivers, but with Keenan Lewis starting opposite a motivated Ike Taylor, and with Cortez Allen playing the nickel, I am not concerned, as I feel this year the secondary will be a strength of the team.
Bottom line, protect Ben, get a push in the running game, and stop the run, the Steelers take home the victory.
The Broncos Will Win This Game If…
The Broncos can run the football effectively, if Manning can get into a rhythm, and if they can pressure Roethlisberger. The Broncos have a very quick offensive line with the ability to get into their blocks fast, creating some running lanes. In pass protection, they demonstrated this preseason that they are able to stay with their blocks long enough for Manning to get rid of the ball, and considering that he has a propensity to deliver the ball quickly anyway, it will be difficult for the Steelers to successfully bring pressure, though they will try. If Manning does find a rhythm, which he will try to do through the short to intermediate passing game, it could fatigue the Steelers defense and set them up for the big or broken play.
Last January, Roethlisberger was harassed by the Broncos, and if they can have a repeat performance, it could be a long day for the Steelers. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller (this time without cast), will look to get to Roethlisberger and eliminate the threat of the vertical passing game from Mike Wallace and company. Look for the Steelers to combat this with Todd Haley’s signature short game.
Two Players Who Need to Step It Up for the Steelers
Troy Polamalu – Troy has not had a big game for a while, and he is due. With his sidekick Ryan Clark on the sidelines, Polamalu will be needed to step up and deliver with a game-changing play. A pick or a sack-fumble from Troy could be the difference in winning or losing this game.
Mike Wallace – Wallace fell off the face of the earth the second half of the season last year. If he wants to be paid like a rock star, then he needs to show up Sunday Night and show that the end of last year was a fluke. A big play from Wallace could ignite the offense and push the other receivers to elevate their game. The speed is great, but Wallace needs to show that he has his concentration and hands back in order.
While I can absolutely envision the Steelers leaving Denver with a win, I have not seen enough from the both lines to feel confident enough to pick them to win. Couple that with the return of Manning, an electrified crowd in prime time in Denver, and the intangibles cannot be ignored. If the Steelers show they can run the football, protect Ben, and stop the run, they will win this game. And while I think they will eventually be able to do this, I think the team is still a couple of weeks away. A late drive by Manning gets the Broncos in field goal range and Matt Prater hits the game-winner.
Broncos 26, Steelers 23