Denver Broncos (5-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5)
================================================== GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 19th meeting. The Denver Broncos lead the all-time series against the Pittsburgh Steelers 11-6-1. However, the Steelers got a huge postseason win last season. Pittsburgh came to Invesco Field at Mile High for the AFC Championship Game and won 34-17 to advance to the Super Bowl.
2006 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 19th (3rd rush, 30th pass); defense 10th (7th rush, 15th pass). Steelers: offense 10th (16th rush, 7th pass); defense 6th (8th rush, 8th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 20-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: Quite simply, the Steelers need a better performance from QB Ben Roethlisberger coming off a four-interception outing. Pittsburgh is a run-first team, but the Broncos have the ability to limit the ground game and force the Steelers to move the ball through the air. When Roethlisberger looks downfield, expect him to attack Broncos CB Darrent Williams, who confidence could be rattled after getting abused by Colts WR Reggie Wayne last weekend. The Broncos aren't sure how much they'll get out of ailing RB Tatum Bell, but rookie Mike Bell was very impressive in extended duty against the Colts. Denver needs to establish the running game to help an offensive line still overcoming the loss of LT Matt Lepsis and to keep QB Jake Plummer out of harm's way against the Steelers' various blitz packages.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Coach Mike Shanahan needs win to tie Hank Stram for 17th all-time with 136 victories. ... Tatum Bell has topped 100 rushing yards in all three road games this season. Steelers: Are 129-30 (.811) under coach Bill Cowher when out-rushing an opponent. ... Roethlisberger is 12-3 (.800) at home as a starter.
--DT Gerard Warren practiced again Thursday. He is probable and should be ready to play Sunday against Pittsburgh. Warren missed last week's game with a sprained right big toe.
--CB Champ Bailey was named the AFC's defensive player of the month for October. Bailey probably will get consideration for defensive player of the year honors. He has three interceptions.
--FB Cecil Sapp had a pair of long runs against Indianapolis last week. Sapp, who was replacing injured Kyle Johnson, gives the Broncos some additional options because of his ability to run the ball.
--G Ben Hamilton has had a solid, quiet season. The Broncos are running the ball well and doing a good job protecting Jake Plummer. Plummer has been sacked 10 times in seven games.
--WR Rod Smith is averaging 9.7 yards per catch, by far the lowest pace of his career. Smith hasn't been as big of a part of Denver's offense since the acquisition of Javon Walker. Walker has more than twice as many yards as Smith this year.
--RB John Kuhn, signed from the practice squad this week, will dress and serve as the backup to Najeh Davenport on third downs and as the backup fullback to Dan Kreider.
--NT Casey Hampton practiced Wednesday and Thursday and will start Sunday. He was upgraded to probable from questionable with a hamstring injury that kept him out last week.
--LB Clark Haggans practiced Wednesday and Thursday and will start Sunday. He's listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
--WR/PR Willie Reid, injured three games ago against Kansas City, has not healed as fast as hoped. He has a mid-foot sprain and was declared out early this week. Last week, he was listed as doubtful.
--C Chukky Okobi will make his first start since 2002. He played the second half of last week's game after Jeff Hartings went down with a MCL sprain.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Broncos aren't planning on making defensive changes.
A week after losing to Indianapolis, a game in which the Broncos didn't blitz and Peyton Manning took advantage of it when Denver didn't get any pressure, the Broncos defended their defensive approach.
After all, Denver allowed only two touchdowns in its first six games. The Broncos felt no need to change.
"Just because something doesn't work one week doesn't mean you have to throw it away," defensive end Kenard Lang said.
The Broncos dramatically changed their defense after losing the AFC Championship Game to Pittsburgh, the team Denver plays this week. The Broncos blitzed a lot last year, but they revamped the defense and have played a basic scheme this year without much blitzing at all.
Many players said the scheme wasn't the problem against the Colts. They didn't get a lot of pressure with the front four, but blitzing Manning usually doesn't work either.
"We got to play harder," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "That's what we needed to do different. We needed to play harder and more sound on defense. Maybe we will add more pressure if we play him again. Who knows? We'll wait for that time. Now we have to worry about Pittsburgh."
Only four teams since 1970 have gone 2-5 or worse and bounced back to make the playoffs.
The Steelers want to be the fifth. One word that won't cross their lips these days, however, is "playoffs." They have one goal and only one goal.
"The thing is to beat the Denver Broncos," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "That's all that matters to us, taking one game at a time. Throw out who's in the lead or whatnot, the main thing for us is to beat the Denver Broncos."
Pittsburgh already trails 5-2 Baltimore by three games in the AFC North.
"We feel we're a good team with a bad record," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We still think we can turn it around and play good football."
Their 2-5 start ties for the second-worst record after seven games by a defending Super Bowl champion. The 1987 New York Giants started 1-6 during a strike season.
The other Super Bowl teams that started 2-5 were the '81 Raiders (7-9 finish), the '82 49ers (3-6 in a strike-shortened season), and the '99 Broncos (6-10).
The Steelers were 7-5 last season and had to win their final four games merely to make it as the sixth and final seed in the AFC. They need to win their next five games just to get to that point this season.
"It's a big challenge ahead of us," coach Bill Cowher said. "But the focus right now is to win this football game and get out of the funk we're in."
The four teams that started 2-5 or worse and made the playoffs since 1970 were the '70 Bengals (1-6 to 8-6), the '90 Saints (2-5 to 8-8), the '95 Lions (2-5 to 10-6) and the '02 Jets (2-5 to 9-7). All lost their first playoff game.
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