The Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2012 season Sunday night against the Denver Broncos and below is a breakdown of the game from an offensive and defensive perspective.
Steelers On Offense:
Expect Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley to try to run early and often in this game. He used Will Johnson at fullback quite a bit during the preseason with only two wide receivers on the field on early downs. Although you can\'t put too much stock into preseason run direction stats, the Steelers did run up the middle 54 times on 143 preseason rushes. When you add in the runs to right and left guard, it equates to 94 runs between the tackles. That is a 66% ratio. Running back Isaac Redman, should he start, is a good straight ahead runner and we saw that last year in the AFC Wild Card game against the Broncos 3-4 front. The Broncos have since switched to a 4-3 under new offensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, but the defense, mostly because of the play of Joe Mays, is susceptible to the run up the middle if you can get a body on him. The Steelers will look to get left guard Willie Colon or center Maurkice Pouncey off the line and to the second level as often as possible. In addition, trapping Colon to the right, a long time staple play of the Steelers offense, should be effective if both Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert can control their men. Successful running on early downs will be key for the Steelers offense, as they do not want Elvis Dumervil to be able to just pin his ears back and go after Max Starks. Although the bread and butter up the middle will be the main course, Haley must mix in enough runs to the left in order to keep Dummervil honest. Some slip screens to the running backs such as rookie Chris Rainey to that side will also keep the Broncos defensive end on his toes, even if they don\'t go for big gains.
Ideally the Steelers want to force strong safety Mike Adams down into the box as soon as possible. What makes the offensive formations and personnel used by Haley so deadly, is that he can effectively run and pass out of many of them as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can check to either a run or a pass depending on what he sees. Should they be able to get 8 men down in the box to help against the run, it should present opportunities on the outside for either Antonio Brown or Mike Wallace to exploit single coverage by Tracy Porter and Champ Bailey with just 1 safety deep, especially on early downs. In addition, there should also be opportunities for tight end Heath Miller to draw Von Miller in coverage on early run downs. This is not a huge mismatch, but Heath should be able to get separation on a few plays with good play action. Having the outside receivers clear out the middle of the field could present an open seem for the tight end.
Third and longs will present problems for the Steelers offense as they likely will need to keep 6 or 7 men in to block Dumervil and Miller, who will be coming off the edges and they both are adept at chasing down a quarterback like Roethlisberger. The running backs will have to chip before getting out into their routes.
The Haley offense is built around establishing the run and everything else plays off of this. During the preseason the Steelers used 3 wide receiver personnel 92 times out of 258 plays, with most of those plays coming late in games to gives receivers a look. This is not the spread type offense that Bruce Arians ran. Falling behind big early, will present problems for this offense.
Steelers On Defense:
When you think Peyton Manning, you think throwing, but in the Bronco offense he will rely heavily on his ground game, and specifically Willis McGahee, who the Steelers are very familiar with. The Broncos, much like the Steelers will use a fullback at times and two tight ends on early downs. McGahee prefers to run north and south, so gap control by the front three is huge. Both Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote must be able to be covered up so as they can make plays.
With Chris Carter likely to start at right outside linebacker in place of James Harrison, expect Manning to run right at him several times with a fullback leading the way to test his ability to set the edge and force the play inside. Carter uses his speed up field to rush the passer, so much like the Steelers offense wants to slow down Dumervil, Manning will try to get the Steelers second year linebacker to think instead of reacting.
The Broncos are also not opposed to trotting out 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) on early downs as this gives Manning the ability to spread out defenses and check to either a pass or run based on what he sees. He is a huge film room nerd and the Steelers need to do their best to sugar their looks in pre snap. That being said, this is not the first dance Manning has had with Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau over the years.
Eric Decker is the key cog in the Broncos offense and most often will line up in the slot to get a free release, especially after going in motion. In the nickel sub package it might be wise to let Cortez Allen press him a bit so he can bump him off of his routes and throw off his timing. Decker is a great route runner, the best on the team, and can easily gain separation if he is not contested. He likes the soft areas of the field, along with the flats, but is not opposed to going over the middle either.
Manning prefers short, quick developing routes as he prefers to get the ball out quick to limit hits on him. While he does not have the arm strength that he once had, he will take his shots. Demaryius Thomas, who is not yet an accomplished route runner, can lull corners to sleep with repetitive come back routes before hitting them with a sluggo. Ike Taylor should be well aware of this by now.
Manning hates pocket disruption as he never has moved well. In past games against the Steelers, pressure up the middle via a zone or fire-x blitz is the most effective, but those blitzers must get home when they come.. While Carter is best off of the edge, the ball will likely be out by the time he gets there, so properly executed twist and stunts inside is the best way to get in the face of Manning to cause disruption. The Broncos offensive line is a better run blocking unit than they are at pass blocking, so route disruption combined with pressure across the face of Manning presents the best chance for a mistake or a forced throw.
Down and distance is huge factor in controlling Manning. If he stays ahead of the chains all night, the Broncos offense will be hard to stop. Hits on Manning are a luxury, so expect LeBeau to try to come after the Broncos quarterback early in the game if the front is not getting an adequate push.
Much like the Steelers beat the New England Patriots last year, ball control and time of possession will be key in this game. The offense has to cash in all red zone opportunities with long time consuming drives. The defense has to stop the run on early downs and find a way to pressure Manning from the inside and not the outside. If the Broncos are able to run the ball, it will be a long night for the Steelers defense, who will be without Harrison and free safety Ryan Clark. The Broncos offense will not be shut down entirely and they must force Manning to throw more than he wants to. The Steelers offense needs to put up at least 24 points to win this game.