The Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 season opener against the Denver Broncos is finally here and below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is my full preview of the game that was posted on Saturday.
Carter Debut - With James Harrison almost certain to be out, second year linebacker Chris Carter will make his first career start at right outside linebacker in his place. Carter received extensive playing time during the preseason, but only came away from those four games with 1 sack. Sunday night he will be going against left tackle Ryan Clady, who is an established pass protector. Carter likes to use his speed to gain the corner, but most likely will never get home that way against Peyton Manning, who gets the ball out quickly. Carter will need to show on at least a few snaps that he can take the inside from Clady during this game to get into the face of Manning quickly. Some well executed and well timed stunts with defensive end Brett Keisel moving the trash up the field on obvious passing downs could open up a lane once or twice for the youngster. Carter also needs to show that he can control the edge against the run and not get sucked inside. This happened more than a few times during the preseason and he can expect the Broncos will run his way to test him with a tight end or fullback deplored as an obstacle. His ability to force the play inside will be key in stopping the run.
Run Success Early - The Steelers must establish the run early against a Broncos defense that can be susceptible to it inside. Both Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer both figure to get work in the game against a Broncos defense that has switched to a 4-3 front from a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Early down run success out of different personnel groupings and formations will really loosen up the middle of the field for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as offensive coordinator Todd Haley uses mostly two wide receiver, two tight end groupings to both run and throw out of. If the offense can\'t run early, it could make for a long night. Ball control and time of possession is key in this game as Manning can\'t score when he is on the sidelines.
BacksCanSlowPass Rush - We have seen the commitment by Haley during the preseason to use the running backs out of the backfield in an effort to not only slow down the edge pass rushers, but also get the ball to his playmakers out in space. Redman and Dwyer are not premier pass catchers, but throwing to them at least a few times early will keep the Broncos defense at least in a position to account for it. While he likely will not see an exorbitant amount of snaps on offense, Haley has to find a way to try to get the ball in the hands of rookie Chris Rainey at least 4 or 5 times. The backs should also be chipping at times to give help to the tackles on obvious passing downs.
No Triple Decker - Everyone thinks that Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is the big threat in the passing game, but in reality it is Eric Decker that Manning looks to first. Decker loves to work out of the slot so that he can get a clean release off the line and often times will be the motion man to ensure that happens. In base defense formations the Steelers could get exposed by Decker easily in zone coverage if Manning reads it correctly. Decker is solid out in space and after the catch and can take a 7 yard slant and turn it into a 30 yard explosive play very easily. The Steelers defense also can\'t allow a linebacker or either of their two safeties, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Mundy, to run with Decker in man coverage as Decker will run away from them 8 times out of 10. In the nickel, Cortez Allen should try to bounce Decker around as much as possible off of the line to limit his free releases. Allen, in my opinion, is the best option to cover Decker if Ike Taylor doesn\'t follow him around the field instead. If that happens, Allen should be fine covering Thomas on the outside due to his physical style and ability to use the sideline as help. If Decker goes for triple digit yardage in this game, it probably results in a Steelers loss.
Make Manning As Predictable As Possible - Because Manning is now the Broncos quarterback, people tend to think he will just air it out, but the reality is that the quarterback would much rather run the ball first to stay out of long down and distance situations on second and third downs. Stopping Willis McGahee early will help, but the Steelers defense can\'t afford to do that by over-playing the run as Manning will pick up on that easily. Solid gap control by the front three is crucial, and although the Broncos line is a much better run blocking unit than they are a pass protecting unit, they are by no means an elite unit. Manning will try to spread things out on first down as well in an effort to get an easy pitch and catch for 5 yards, where at that point his whole playbook opens up to him on second downs when he is ahead of the chains. When Manning is put in third and long is when he has been known to force throws down the field and into tight areas. It also is the only time that he will hold the ball longer in the pocket, which sets up opportune times to hit him.
Long Fields Via Special Teams - The longer the field that Manning is faced with the better. The Steelers might be without the services of Baron Batch in this game and they have already lost Sean Spence for the season. The newly signed DeMarcus Van Dyke very well could be a gunner in this game in order to take advantage of his speed. Curtis Brown, the Steelers special teams demon last season, needs to make his presence felt early on and rookie punter Drew Butler needs to make sure that he doesn\'t outkick his coverage to help things out. The Steelers will be lucky if any big returns on punts or kickoffs are not turned into points. Shorts fields are gifts to Manning.
Red Zone Trips Must End With TD - The Steelers are not going to shut out the Broncos with Manning at the helm and they would do good to hold the Broncos under 23 points. That means that it will be up to the offense to score at least 24 points if they want a shot at winning this game. We all remember the red zone woes of years gone by and now it is up to Haley to change that. Every trip into the red zone that results in only 3 points, or worse, no points at all, is a huge advantage for the Broncos in this game.
Prediction - If you have followed this site for a long time you know that it is rare for me to pick against the Steelers. Unlike most Steeler sites, you know that I take a very objective view to not only every aspect of the Steelers off the field, but on the field as well. With that said, this game is scary to me. The Steelers will be without Harrison and free safety Ryan Clark for starters and they are going against one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game in his own backyard. The Steelers have to find a way to pressure Manning and I am fearful that they will not be able to do it consistently enough. While there is a lot of positive in what the offense will look like this year, they will need to be nearly perfect in the opener as a unit to win this game. That will be a tough chore for this unit early on in the season in a new offense. I see the Steelers winning a ton of games this year along with the division, but I think for a second season in a row that they start off 0-1. I hope I am incredibly wrong with all of that said.
Final Score - Broncos 24 Steelers 22