Come Sunday night, Denver is facing their first game of the Manning Era, and the offense will probably will still have a few wrinkles to try out. On the other side of the ball, the loss of both S Ryan Clark and ROLB James Harrison (Harrison is presumably, according to his own Twitter account, not going to play) should hurt the Steelers. So might the uncertainty of how to defend against a scheme that no one has seen, although much of the run game will be similar to plays that Denver ran in 2011.
One side story that interests me is this: I thought Dick LeBeau (to whom I wish a happy 75th birthday today) seemed to utterly blow his defensive coordinator role in the Wild Card game last season. I'm sure that he's redoing that entire issue to match what he sees in Denver's new look and he's hoping that he understands essentially what the Broncos will be bringing. Denver has gone vanilla on both sides of the ball in preseason, as you'd expect, and I'm not sure that we've seen anything like what McCoy/Fox/Manning have concocted for the Steelers to defend. Todd Haley will have some wrinkles of his own, but not to the same degree. The Steelers tend to stay within their standard scheme - run the power game and trust in Ben Roethlisberger's arm. I haven’t read or seen any indication that they’ll change a great deal.
Steelers Offensive Line
The Steelers tried hard to shop Max Starks (LOT) in the offseason, only to find that their new LT Mike Adams wasn’t ready and they had to go back to Starks. The full OL, offensive left to right, is:
Max Starks, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert
Starks (6’7” 337 lb) has been kept to give Michael Adams a chance to develop, but he gave up one sack, one hit and two hurries to Denver in the Wild Card last year. Willie Colon was their RT until they decided that he wasn't going to get the job done and moved him inside. Pouncey can be a monster when he's on, but he’s been up and down so far. The 330 lb RG Ramon Foster was drafted in 2009 as a tackle until they found that he didn't have the feet for it. He's taking over for the injured 1st round rookie David DeCastro: he had been slated to start at LG before DeCastro's injury. He's huge, strong, and has limited foot skills. Wolfe will probably be up against him on nickel downs, which should be interesting. If Derek doesn't let Foster get his hands into him, I’d expect that the Wolfman will be successful.
Marcus Gilbert is a wide load who was drafted in the second round of 2011 by PITT - they believed that he's going to develop into a powerful ROT and he’s proving them right. He’s got good fundamentals - sets a wide base, keeps his feet moving, but he can get lazy with his hands at times. He’s been vulnerable in the past to speed rushers off the edge in the past. He might not be up to handling Von Miller's speed - he gave up a sack, and hit and 4 hurries in last year’s game.
The Broncos Offensive Line is solid - very good at run blocking and decent to very good in pass pro, given Peyton Manning's fast diagnosis and release. All of them save Manny Ramirez were together last year, and OL continuity is a huge plus. They’ve got their work cut out against the Steelers.
Quarterback - Denver is up against the skill of Big Ben Roethisberger, and I think that it would be a mistake to overlook that. Whatever his offseason issues, he's a big, strong, talented QB who's hard to bring down. He throws well on the move as well as in the pocket. His receivers are smaller than Denver’s, and Champ Bailey did a nice job on Mike Wallace in the WC game
PIT is up against Peyton Manning, who’s ready with an offense that they've never seen. The Steelers have struggled against Manning in the past, and that could be problematic for them. Manning’s ability to take apart a defense from a quick look at the line is unsurpassed. Denver’s likely to key on shorter to intermediate passes, but rumors of Manning’s arm weakness are overestimated - he can still air it out long to Thomas or Decker.
Running Back - With the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall out, their run game comes from Isaac Redman, who gained 121 yards on 17 carries against Denver last season. Jonathan Dwyer is his backup; he pounded out 123 yards on 16 attempts over last year. Both backs are big - Redman is 6'0 "230 lb and Dwyer is 5'11" and 229 lb. The fullback, Will Johnson, was signed in March - he's a sizable rookie out of West Virginia at 6'2" and 238 lb. You can count on the Steelers to run the ball heavily - Denver’s run defense has been thin recently, and PIT hopes to exploit that.
Denver’s Willis McGahee should be joined by Lance Ball and Knowshon Moreno - Ronnie Hillman might not be on the field. He’s got to improve his blocking to move up, which is one of the toughest skills to master. Moreno is excellent at it now, but was terrible in his first seasons. You have to learn defensive schemes to know where to look as well as how to master the intricacies of blocking itself. McGahee was born to break tackles. Moreno is an excellent blocker for Manning and a top-flight receiver. Lance Ball is the Broncos jack of all trades. If Hillman plays, he’s a threat on the edges
Wide Receiver - The Steelers receivers are essentially the same as last year - Heath Miller (5 receptions in last year’s game) at TE, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown (5 receptions in the 2011 Wild Card) are starting, with Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders backing them up. They’re a dangerous bunch. Wallace missed camp on contract issues and could be rusty - I hope so, but wouldn’t bet on it. This is a good group and they should test Denver's new-look secondary. They’re smaller than the Broncos receivers.
Eric Decker has been Manning’s go-to receiver so far. D. Thomas can burn up the sideline or on a slant or skinny post and the Steelers should struggle to keep pace with him - he’s also bigger and stronger than his PIT counterparts. Brandon Stokley is still the Slot Machine. Andre ‘ Bubba’ Caldwell and former track star Matthew Willis round out the Broncos’ group.
The Steelers Defensive Line:
Ziggy Hood is at LDE. He's been underachieving for two seasons, but camp rumors have him stepping up this year. Brett Keisel, aka The Beard, is at RDE. He has earned one pro bowl and one pro bowl alternate slot in the last two seasons, even though he's 10 seasons into his career. Ryan Clady will have his hands full, but played well against him last year, allowing only 1 QB hit with no sacks, hurries or penalties in the Wild Card game. Casey Hampton is out rehabbing an ACL surgery - Alameda Ta’amu will fill in for him.
Denver’s D-Line offers rookie Derek Wolfe at LDE, Justin Bannan (NT) and Ty Warren (UT) at the defensive tackles and Elvis Dumervil at RDE. The nickel package moves Wolfe to DT and brings Von Miller up to the line in a DE/OLB role, where he created 11.5 sacks last season, to go with Doom’s 9.5. The key to beating any QB is getting in his face all game long. With Wolfe added as a rusher, I look forward to this part of the game. DC Jack Del Rio likes to get pressure with his found linemen, but isn’t shy about blitzing when the opening it there.
As far as Linebackers go, LaMarr Woodley's a talent at LOLB - he had 9 sacks in 10 games last year. Larry Foote is aging and started only 5 game last season: he’s in the last year of his contract, but he still can't be overlooked at LILB. Chris Carter at ROLB is a backup with no real experience - Carter didn't start a game in his rookie year, 2011, and only scored 3 tackles. RILB Lawrence Timmons is a talented LB who racked up 93 tackles last season. Sean Spence was someone the Steelers believed would be a long term starter, but he went down in preseason with a bad knee injury and is out for the year on IR.
Denver has Von Miller at Sam, Joe Mays at Mike and Wesley Woodyard at Will, with Keith Brooking and Danny Trevathan behind him. Mays comes out and Trevathan and CB Chris Harris come in on nickel downs. It’s a solid group, with Miller an elite player.
Cornerback - The 6’2” Ike Taylor is still very effective at age 32; the Steelers thought enough of him to offer him a 4 year contract last season. His skills are still slipping some, but he won’t be easy to beat. His opposite number was William Gay, but Gay departed for Arizona and his replacement is Keenan Lewis, who hasn't started a game in the past 2 years and mostly at special teams. He did have one start and played in all 16 games in 2009. He hasn't started a game since and has played less each year. Now that he's out on the edge, I think that Decker can confound him and that Demaryius can outrun him. I also expect Manning to pick on him and on Cortez Allen, who hasn’t started a game yet and is now the PIT nickelback. The Steelers also signed 2nd year CB DeMarcus Van Dyke on Friday.
Denver’s Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter will start on the edges. Bailey is still the Champ, and Porter has a one year contract within which to prove his worth - Denver’s been impressed with him in preseason. Chris Harris, who had a great 2011, will be at nickel. Tony Carter and Omar Bolden round out the group.
Safety PIT’s Ryan Clark won't play due to the possible effects of altitude on his sickle cell anemia. His backup is Ryan Mundy,who’s also out. On the other hand, Troy Polamalu is one very dangerous guy, and he'll be all over the field. I'd guess that Manning has been studying his film in excruciating detail - I can't wait to see that matchup.
Denver will start Mike Adams and Rahim Moore at safety, with Quinton Carter and Jim Leonard behind them. They aren’t really a dominating group, but they should get the job done.
After all is said and done, the Broncos are opening at home and should be playing with a ton of emotion. They’re facing some weaknesses in the Steelers secondary to throw at and Manning should make the most of it. They've got a national game in which to prove themselves, and I see them doing it. Jack Del Rio can let the new defense twists out of the bag, and Mike McCoy and Manning can take the wraps off the 2012 offense. The Steelers should make it close - 24-20 wouldn't surprise me - but I have to think that Denver has the edge at home.