When the Steelers are on Offense-
As usual, the Steelers offensive line is a mess. They attempted to adress it in the draft with David DeCastro and Mike Adams, using first and second round draft picks respectively. Adams was big disappointment in the preseason, and David DeCastro was placed on IR with a knee injury. Pittsburgh has as much speed at receiver as any team in the NFL with Wallace and Brown. With Mendenhall recovering from a season ending injury in 2011, look for the Steelers to use a running back by comittee approach with Isaac Redman and Jonathon Dwyer. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has used it often in the past. One thing he doesn't tend to do is use his tight ends much in the passing game. Expect to see Heath Miller blocking much more often than being used as a receiver. He'll need to help out against Denver's dynamic pass rushing duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The Steelers will be looking to establish the running game against Denver's defense, who finished 22nd vs. the run in 2011. The Broncos have beefed up the defensive line with a healthy Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson. They also added rookie Derek Wolfe and veteran run stuffer Justin Banaan. The Broncos also improved the secondary with the additions of veterans Tracey Porter and Mike Adams. If the Broncos can stop the Steelers from controlling the game with thier rushing attack, look for Big Ben to have a long night picking himself up off of the grass.
When the Broncos are on Offense-
Peyton Manning finally makes his long awaited return to the NFL in Denver's home opener. Every throw in the preseason has been put under a microscope. The 'experts' have analyzed, scrutnized, and heathanized every pass, drop back, and read the Peyton has made. We've heard everything from, " He can't throw a spiral", to "He can't throw to his right." Make no mistake about it. Peyton will be playing with a chip on his shoulder in the 2011 season. He was cut from the team he carried for over a decade and written off as a man that is too far past his prime to build around. John Elway disagrees. Look for Peyton to take full advantage of the mile high altitude and use his patented no huddle offense early and often. Rumor has it that the Steelers have ordered an oxygen tank and mask for every defender that will be on the field sunday night. James Harrison is questionable to play in this game. The Steelers are going to need someone to step up and get pressure on Peyton if they want to have any chance to win game. Pittsburgh had the #1 overall defense in 2011 (both in yardage allowed and scoring), and were #1 against the pass. That will be put to the test early on. The loss of Ryan Clark and possibly James Harrison will be a huge hit to the Steelers defense. Manning has made a hall of fame career out of taking advantage of every mismatch on the field. Look for him to spread out the Steelers defense and find the open receiver all night long.
The Broncos have a solid kicking game. Matt Prater was signed to a big contract during the offseason. He struggled from 40-49 yards last season. While that may be a problem early in the game, Prater is money when the game is on the line, regardless of distance. He has hit 28 of 29 field goals in the 4th quarter and overtime. He also led the NFL in touchbacks in 2011. Shaun Suisham was average at best in 2011. The Broncos finished the 2011 season 3rd in punt returns and 11th in kickoff returns. Pittsburgh finished the 2011 season 12th in punt returns and 8th in kickoff returns.
James Harrison or not, Steelers coordinator Dick Labeau always makes the Steelers a tough matchup for any team. He'll be celbrating his 75th birthday on Sunday night, and more than 50 of those years have been in the NFL. Peyton Manning and the Broncos won't show him anything that he hasn't seen before. On the flip side, he and his Steelers defense won't show Manning anything he hasn't seen before as well. For these reasons alone, I expect this to be a close game. If new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio can find a way to improve the Broncos run defense, they should come out on top.