The one constant in the NFL is that nothing is constant, every week you see several very good teams get beat by a team with less talent. Last week the Steelers were such a team when they lost to the less than intimidating Oakland Raiders. The old adage is that any team can beat any other team "on any given Sunday" so here are my seven keys/prediction to look for on this "given Sunday".
1. In a Rush - If there could be one key element that has defined both the Steelers and Broncos season it would have to be pass rush. The Broncos didn't get any in last weeks game against the Colts and gave up 34 points in a loss, while the Steelers couldn't stop it last week against the Raiders leading to five sacks and four interceptions of the Steelers young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Can the Broncos provide enough pass rush to force quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into mistakes or will the Steelers step up and protect their quarterback?
Prediction: It all depends on Money, Gerard "Big Money" Warren that is. Gerard Warren is not a singular force that can defeat all comers when pass rushing. What he is however, is a player that opposing teams are forced to double team freeing up others like defensive ends Elvis Dumervil and Kenard Lang.If Warren recovers from his injuries and plays, the Broncos dominate in this area, if he doesn't they will have a hard time getting pressure on Roethlisberger.
2. Plum(mer) Crazy - Last Sunday I hurt my back hurriedly climbing back on the Jake Plummer bandwagon. The Broncos much maligned QB had a stellar game against the Indianapolis Colts, reminding all Broncos fans why we love and sometimes hate Jake. However, and it's a BIG however, some perspective is in order here. The Colts are arguably one of the five worst defensive teams in football and this week's opponent still has a core of fantastic defensive players. Remember this is the team that absolutely confused and dominated Jake Plummer in the aforementioned AFC title game.
While this may sound silly, the key to Jake's great play against the Colts had very little to do with Jake and a whole lot to do with the Broncos offensive formula for winning. It goes like this - run the ball well forcing teams to over commit to stopping the run, then play action and bootleg to complete passes and slow down the pass rush. When it works it's poetry in motion, when it doesn't Jake becomes a below average pocket passer.
Prediction: The Steelers are the team that "figured out" how to beat this version of the Broncos. In the AFC title game they played disciplined defense, did not over commit to the run, and in doing so forced Plummer out of his comfort zone.I don't see the Steelers coaching staff suddenly forgetting this fact in the last nine months, so count on more of the same and the return of bad Jake. Jake's line 10 of 22 with 2 interceptions.
3. With Bells On - During the draft of the fantasy football league my wife and I play in, I wisely instructed her to pick up Mike Bell in the fourth round, two picks before I picked up Tatum Bell. That worked out wonderfully for me until about week three of the NFL season when Tatum became the Broncos primary rusher. From that point on every time he got a nice gain during a game my wife gave me the "you sneaky bastard" look as I was the one who convinced her to take Mike Bell instead of the player she had listed on her draft sheet....Tatum Bell.
During last week's game I got the defiant "serves you right" look every time Mike Bell made a nice run on the way to 136 yards and two touchdowns. Most football guys would say that Mike's performance creates a real controversy at running back for the Broncos. I say it's a problem a lot of NFL coaches would love to have, choosing between two pretty talented young players. Regardless of their record the Steelers are a great defensive team that stops the run well. The 3-4 scheme they use on defense has always posed problems for the Broncos zone blocking.
Prediction: Tatum Bell will start but don't be surprised to see Mike Bell get 10-15 carries as coach Mike Shanahan tries to wear the Steelers D down. Look for an effective if not stellar night from both backs with about 150 combined rushing yards.
4. Quick Recovery - All week long we have read how Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was torched by the Colts' wide receiver Reggie Wayne. We read how Williams was drafted solely for the purpose of stopping the Colts number two wideout and he failed miserably in fulfilling that purpose. What the football "experts" failed to point out was the fact that Williams has been week in and week out one of the best young corners in football. This week's game matches Williams up against the Steelers' number one draft pick Santonio Holmes and journeyman six year player Cedrick Wilson. Williams gives up a couple inches to both guys but gives up nothing in talent and heart.
Prediction: The kid with the "Frohawk" bounces back this week with an INT.....for a touchdown!
5. Mane Attraction - You have two defined camps in the NFL. Those who loved it when Kansas City running back Larry Johnson tackled Steelers safety Troy Polamalu by the hair and those that just love to see the kid run around like a wild man with his hair streaming behind him. I'm personally not a big fan of the hair but I love to watch Polamalu play. While he has yet to record a sack this season Polamalu is always a threat to blitz and that combined with his innate ability to be around the ball on every play makes Polamalu a key to the Steelers defense.
Both Polamalu and the Steelers other starting safety, Ryan Clark, are both under six foot tall. Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler is six fourish with a big body and good speed. Using Scheffler to stretch the Steeler defense and by proxy, Polamalu, only makes sense. Scheffler was a favorite target of Broncos rookie quarterback Jay Cutler this preseason and has finally been getting some touches during the regular season.
Prediction: Look for Sheffler to have a break out game against the Steelers with six catches for 90 plus yards.
6. The Chin - I have always liked Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. He's a passionate football coach, family man and all around good guy. He also leads from the front instead of pushing from the rear like some coaches. When the media slammed Roethlisberger this week, Cowher came forward and told them to blame him for the Steelers poor record not his young quarterback. The Chin is also the defensive equivalent of Mike Shanahan, in a word - brilliant.
If you look on his roster you will find marquee big name college players few and far between. Cowher drafts blue collar players that work hard just like the blue collar fans that live in the city where the Steelers play, oddly a lot of those players come from schools like Colorado, Colorado State and Northern Colorado. The match-up between these two master strategists will be a fun one to watch. Last year Cowher out-coached Shanahan and won the AFC championship because of it.
Prediction: Cowher will have his guys ready to play on both sides of the ball and he's officially "one up" on Shanahan. Mike will have to come up with a few new wrinkles this week in order to win the game. In a match of truly great football guys, Shanahan evens the score against Cowher.
7. Snake Bit - Broncoland has been divided for weeks now on the topic of Jake Plummer. Some, including me, have called for rookie Jay Cutler. Using the logic that if we are playing horrible on offense and winning with defense we might as well get Cutler some experience. Jake did play well against the Colts and got a short reprieve because of it. You read above and probably noted that I only predicted Plummer throwing 22 passes this week, and there's good reason for that.
Prediction: Jake won't make it out of the third quarter in this weeks game. The Steelers completely dominated the Broncos in the last match-up largely because Plummer was forced away from what he does well. Look for rookie Jay Cutler to finish this game for the Broncos and usher in a new era of Bronco football. Broncos 17 Steelers 16
Toby Thorp is long time contributor to BroncosUpdate.com. He has experience as a football player and commentator as well as being enough of a Denver Broncos fan that he tried to name his first son "Seven." Unfortunately the child's mother did not cooperate. You can e-mail Thorp at Bighungry71@yahoo.com with your arguments or critiques or post a message for Bighungry71 on our Broncos Hardcore Message Board