Just line five guys up and play

The Pittsburgh Steelers face the difficult task of marching into Denver with vague hopes of struggling back to .500. The Denver Broncos don't sport many weaknesses that Bill Cowher could hope to exploit, so the game will just come down to effort and sheer will. After this game, the Steelers need more than a bye week. They need a buy week.

As in, they need to buy an offensive lineman, or four.

If you ask the man with all the answers, and we have, you'll find out that it is not just Marvel Smith who is injured, but that Kendall Simmons is playing with severe pain in his shoulder. To say that Simmons is playing at all may be stretch given his performance over the last few weeks. Nonetheless, Cowher still didn't think enough about the situation to activate Keydrick Vincent for the last few games.

That will likely change given the thinness of the offensive line right now (and this line is paper thin). Whatever the crisis on the OL, Alan Faneca and the troops are going to have to find a way to open some running lanes, ideally for Jerome Bettis, who would be a better choice to face those speedy linebackers that play for the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos are about as well-rounded a football team as you'll find in the NFL. They defend the run fairly well, but they do give up some strength and size in the middle. They make up for that in speed, particularly in LB Ian Gold. Gold has more passes defended than Pittsburgh Steelers CB Chad Scott. Still, Gold is second on the team in tackles, behind LB-mate Al Wilson, and helps man one of the better pass defenses Tommy Maddox will face all year.

After the implosion against the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, the Broncos are not what the doctor ordered for the hapless Steelers and their beleaguered quarterback. Maddox will have to face the team that drafted and cut him without much hope for pass protection.

Looking at this game on paper, the Steelers are not much of a match for a balanced offensive attack and a defense that swarms to the football. Save the spectacular elusiveness of Chiefs returner Dante Hall, the Broncos would be undefeated and are certainly one of the favorites at this point in the season to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

While the Steelers will field an offensive line staffed with the walking wounded, the Broncos are relatively healthy save the shoulder of QB Jake Plummer, who is easily playing the best football of his career. Of course, if Maddox was playing behind a line as scrappy and tough as the one in Denver, there still might be Super Bowl talk in Pittsburgh.

The Broncos are currently just beyond the front end of a tough five game stretch that ends with a home game against New England and a bye week. Denver started it out last week with a narrow loss to Kansas City, a team they outplayed. The Broncos will look to get back on track against the Steelers before heading on the road to play Minnesota and Baltimore.

But don't expect Denver to look past Pittsburgh to the big game against the re-energized Vikings. Coach Mike Shanahan knows this is a game the Broncos need to win. He does not want to go into the Metrodome facing the prospect of a 3-game losing streak that could derail the season.

The Steelers, on the other hand, are struggling to just find themselves. A loss to the Broncos would bury Pittsburgh at 2-4 and 1.5 games out of first place in the AFC North, depending if Baltimore Ravens can handle the lackluster Arizona Cardinals in Phoenix. More than anything, the Steelers are looking for some confidence and an upset in Denver would go a long way to providing it. A loss may throw the Steelers into a season-long tailspin.

As difficult as it was to imagine at this time last week how the Steelers could lose so badly to the Browns, it is even more difficult to project how Pittsburgh could beat Denver. No team can weather interceptions going the other way for six and completion rates by the opposing QB that run in the neighborhood of 90%. The Steelers are dead last in that latter department, allowing almost 70% passing attempts to be completed.

Whether or not Plummer is able to go, the Steelers defense figures to make the opposing quarterback look like Johnny Unitas in his prime. If you go by games that the Steelers have played you would be forgiven for thinking that Cleveland is going to the Super Bowl with two Pro Bowl QBs on its roster.

Yet, Bill Cowher always seems to get the best from his football team when you expect the worst (you can even count the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens). Whether this team is more like the 1998 version or the 1995 one remains to be seen. The word out of practice this week is that everyone and anybody are lining up to play offensive tackle. The Steelers are just going to throw five guys out on the field, hopefully the best five, and play some football. That would be a good start on the road back to respectability, which is the best this fan can hope for right now.

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