Broncos Inside Slant - October 9

Injuries to key players may play a big role in Sunday's game as the Broncos face Pittsburgh. Read about the Broncos' plans for the Steelers, key matchups and all the latest personnel information in this latest inside report.

It's been nearly six years since the Broncos and Steelers met, and that was for the right to play in Super Bowl XXXII. While there's not as much on the line this Sunday, both teams are hoping to get back on track after tough losses.

"We know this is a very dangerous football team," Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said.

"This is the best defense that we'll see from top to bottom. They're very fast. You don't see very many 3-4 teams. They're very physical. When I was in Baltimore, when you played this team, you know you played a ballgame that Sunday."

The Broncos already are banged up going into the game, with nine players listed on the injury report. Quarterback Jake Plummer tops the list with an injury to his right shoulder, similar to what he suffered in Week 2. Plummer, however, expects to be ready.

Cornerback Deltha O'Neal isn't on the injury report, but his confidence may be suffering after a tough outing in Kansas City. The biggest challenge may not be defending 6-5 wide receiver Plaxico Burress; it may be getting O'Neal to clear his mind and focus on the task at hand, not what happened against the Chiefs.

"If you get beat, you've got to put that out of your mind and I don't know if he's doing a good job of that," Sharpe said Monday. "Little things migrate into big things and it's hurting his play on special teams because he's thinking about the play that happened a quarter ago.

"You have to be able to let it go and I don't know if he's doing a great job of that right now."

Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer acknowledged that O'Neal has struggled somewhat the last few games.

"He made a play and intercepted a ball (versus Kansas City), but from a technical standpoint, for a couple of weeks now he's struggled," Coyer said.

O'Neal has bounced back before. So have the Broncos. They are the third-best team in games following a loss, compiling a 15-4 record in such games. They know the schedule doesn't get easier from here on out, with two tough road games coming up against unbeaten Minnesota and Baltimore.

SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. Broncos hold a 10-6-1 edge and are 5-2-1 at home. In the last regular-season meeting in 1997, Pittsburgh won 35-24 when Kordell Stewart threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more scores. Denver, however, got revenge in the playoffs that same year, knocking off the Steelers 24-21 in the AFC Championship Game.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Shannon Sharpe is listed as questionable on this week's injury report with a bruised knee. He was relieved to find out there was no structural damage.

"It's week 6, so I feel like Week 6. I can imagine what I'll feel like in Week 16," Sharpe said.

--The game is billed as the return of Tommy Maddox, once drafted as the successor to John Elway. But don't expect Maddox to get caught up in the sentimentality, not with the Steelers coming off a 33-13 pounding at the hands of Cleveland.

"That was a long time ago," he said. "I have a lot of friends there and it will be nice to see some people. But the situation we're in, we need to go in and play well and try to get a victory.

"I know from first-hand experience it's a tough place to play. Only a few people on team are still there. I'll think about it a little, but not a lot."

BY THE NUMBERS: 1,244 -- Points scored by Jason Elam in his career. He now ranks 20th all-time.

8,096 -- Receiving yards by Rod Smith. He also has a franchise-leading streak of 66 straight games with at least one catch.

141.9 -- Jake Plummer's passer rating in the first quarter of games this season, compared with 49.2 in the fourth.

0 -- Downs played by prized free-agent acquisition Daryl Gardener this year. He has yet to be activated, first because of a wrist injury suffered in an off-the-field incident, then last week because of the flu.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's no hangover from that loss. Guys are already today getting after it." -- QB Jake Plummer, on bouncing back after a heart-breaking, one-point loss to Kansas City.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Broncos decided to go with the status quo on defense, which only makes sense since they are playing so well. That meant releasing veteran safety Lee Flowers when he returned from his banned-substance suspension.

Daryl Gardener, meanwhile, figures to miss his sixth straight game. He is pretty much over strep throat but his conditioning has suffered severely.

PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES

--QB Jake Plummer did not practice Wednesday and likely will be limited Thursday as well because of a shoulder injury. But if he shows improvement as he expects by Friday, he should start.

--TE Shannon Sharpe practiced Wednesday with a bandage around his knee, and said the extra padding should help prevent injury to a deep bruise.

--DT Daryl Gardener practiced only on a limited basis, with the scout team, which means the chances he'll play Sunday are remote.

--SS Kenoy Kennedy practiced Wednesday and hopes to get back in the starting lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. His replacement, Nick Ferguson, has played well but is still limp

--WR Ed McCaffrey is listed as probable with a thigh injury but he practiced, and likely will play though expect Ashley Lelie to see more playing time as the season goes on.

GAME PLAN: There's no question the Steelers have struggled to run the ball, averaging just 83.0 yards per game. The Broncos will do their best to make sure that continues, stacking the line and forcing Pittsburgh into a one-dimensional game.

Offensively, the Broncos, especially with Jake Plummer a bit nicked up, will come out running the ball to set up play-action. Though the Steelers are ranked No. 1 against the pass, they haven't been generating a lot of pressure on the quarterback. It will help if Plummer is healthy enough to get out of the pocket, where he is most dangerous.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Steelers WR Plaxico Burress vs. Broncos CB Lenny Walls. This figures to be a preview of the Lenny Walls vs. Randy Moss matchup next week. Burress stands 6-5 and is tops among AFC receivers (top 25) with a 16.1-yard per catch average. Walls, in his first year starting, has played remarkably well. He's gotten plenty of help up front from a solid pass rush, but with two solid receivers Walls figures to get his share of action Sunday.

--Broncos DE Bert Berry vs. Steelers LT Oliver Ross. Berry's quick burst off the line should give the Steelers fits, especially with regular starter Marvel Smith ruled out because of a shoulder injury. Berry leads the Broncos with 4.5 sacks.

INJURY IMPACT: Jake Plummer is pretty banged up, so don't expect him to take too many chances with his sore shoulder. His line also is pretty beat up, but center Tom Nalen and left tackle Ephraim Salaam are as tough as they get and will be ready to go Sunday.

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