Steelers-Broncos Game Advance

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> It's the blueprint for beating the Denver Broncos in Denver, and it's really not a secret. <br><br> Simply call that blueprint "The Merril Hoge Game", known to Pittsburgh Steelers fans because it nearly led to one of the great upsets in the franchise's post-season history.

Following the 1989 regular season, the Steelers traveled to Denver off a wild-card win in overtime against the Houston Oilers. The Steelers were heavy underdogs to the Broncos of John Elway and a quick, active defense. The Steelers countered with Hoge, a relatively unknown fullback at the time, and he responded with 120 yards on 16 carries by running straight at the smallish Broncos front seven.

The Steelers lost the game, 24-23, after leading most of the way, but the performance by Hoge prompted the governor of his home state to declare "Merril Hoge Days" in Idaho a month later. A similar scenario could unfold Sunday night for the Steelers nearly 14 years later. The 4-1 Broncos are heavily favored to defeat the 2-3 Steelers, but the Broncos have a chink in their armor. Although their front seven is quick and rangy, it's on the small side. The key is to run right at them, and teams have this season, to the tune of 4.7 yards per carry, which ranks 28th in the NFL.

But do the Steelers have a Hoge hiding in their backfield? Not so far. The Steelers are averaging only 3.2 yards per carry and are headed for their worst rushing season under Coach Bill Cowher, who took over in 1992.

Their leading rusher, Amos Zereoue, has only 262 yards rushing and is on pace to gain 838 yards all season. That would've been good for 26th in the NFL rushing race last season, or three spots ahead of Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.

Of course, it's not all Zereoue's fault.

"We've got to get better," All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said of the offensive line. "It's pretty bad right now up front. We're not playing good as a unit and there's kind of a snowball effect." The line was examined closely in practice this week, but changes probably won't be made since Todd Fordham returned to practice after missing time with back problems. Fordham is part of the problem at tackle, where neither the injured Marvel Smith nor Oliver Ross has been much help. The Steelers looked at a number of different players at both tackle spots this week, including Faneca, and could make drastic, in-game changes if necessary.

Up front, the Broncos have only one player who weighs more than 300 pounds, and 330-pound journeyman tackle Darius Holland might be replaced this week by 295-pounder Daryl Gardener, who's missed every game this season with a hand injury.

The Denver pass-rushers are 250-pound end Bertrend Berry (4.5 sacks) and 295-pound end Trevor Pryce (2 sacks), the team's best lineman.

At linebacker, the Broncos use 223-pound Ian Gold, 240-pound Al Wilson and 236-pound John Mobley. Strong safety Kenoy Kennedy was downgraded to questionable late in the week, possibly leaving the position to 201-pounder Nick Ferguson.

The Steelers will need to attack straight ahead and they have Jerome Bettis in the bullpen as an option. Either Zereoue or Bettis must be utilized to keep Denver's explosive offense off the field. The success of that Denver offense begins with a small-but-athletic offensive line that has paved the way for an attack that averages 5.0 yards per carry.

Cutback runner Clinton Portis took advantage of his line's athletic ability to the tune of 1,508 yards as a rookie last season. This season, Portis has missed one-and-a-half games with a chest injury but still has 432 yards on 69 carries (6.3 avg.).

Jake Plummer, the peach of the Broncos' free-agent class last off-season, has turned his game around and has a passer rating of 92.5, fourth in the NFL. In the last four games, he's throw eight touchdown pass without an interception. An injured throwing shoulder may prevent Plummer from playing. Veteran Steve Beuerlein is the backup.

With either quarterback, the receiving threats are veterans Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, and young deep threat Ashley Lelie. Shannon Sharpe is still a productive tight end. He's second on the team with 16 receptions and first with three touchdown catches. Smith has 24 catches for 313 yards.

It's an offense the Steelers need to keep off the field if they don't want to head into the bye with a 2-4 record. The Steelers need "The Merril Hoge Game."

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