Steelers brace for hard-hitting Broncos

PITTSBURGH – In describing the play that may become known as the turning point of the New England Patriots' dynasty, Tom Brady never mentioned Champ Bailey.

"They were blitzing and I rolled right," said Brady. "I got hit and, when I was on the ground, heard the crowd reaction and I looked up and said, ‘Oh, no.'"

Brady was blitzed, hit, rattled and dazed. It was like that at mid-season in Denver, when Brady walked away from a loss saying he'd never been hit so hard; the goose-egg in the sacks column notwithstanding.

"He took some shots," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said that day.

So they are the hard-hitting Denver Broncos. Forget about that No. 15 defensive ranking, and forget about that No. 28 sacks ranking: These Broncos hit.

"Yeah, they're hard-hitting," said Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. "The biggest thing is they get their shots on quarterbacks. They bring everybody, and whoever's out there covers. That's the way they do it and they've been successful."

The Steelers and Broncos will meet today at 3 p.m. at Invesco Field in Denver for the AFC championship and the question in Pittsburgh should be: How will the Steelers score?

Easily the more scrutinized angle this week has been the reverse: How will Jake Plummer score once the Broncos' second-ranked run game has been stopped by the Steelers' third-ranked run defense.

But if the Steelers are fortunate enough to shut down the Broncos' running game, how will they turn it around and score? After all, the Steelers will be dealing with more than crowd noise and thin air. They'll be dealing with the one defense that flustered Tom Brady. No one had ever done that in the playoffs.

The Broncos might rank in the middle of the pack in yards allowed, but they're tied with the Steelers for third in fewest points allowed. Bailey, the shutdown corner, is one reason. He's the prototype these days when scouts go looking for big-time college cornerbacks.

The safeties help, too. Even though scouts say John Lynch and Nick Ferguson lack range, they've helped the Broncos become the NFL's top defense against tight ends, according to statisticians from The Football Outsiders.

The Broncos have certainly been tested by tight ends, considering Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates play in their division. Those two tight ends combined for over 2,000 receiving yards this season, but averaged only 40 per game against the Broncos.

As for the Broncos' defensive line, the Cleveland exports are two-gappers more concerned with stopping the run than pressuring the quarterback. They, like their brethren in Pittsburgh, are well-paid pack mules.

"It's their linebackers," said Steelers fullback Dan Kreider. "They just play downhill. Those backers are fast, athletic and make a lot of plays."

Which one stands out?

"All of them," Kreider said. "(MLB) Al Wilson's been there for a number of years and is definitely a solid backer. (WLB) Ian Gold's been back and forth with injuries, but he's stable. The other guy (SLB D.J. Williams) makes plays. He's a solid backer.

"They all stand out. If you look at their defense, that's the strength -- the backers and their ability to make plays."

Gold leads in tackles with 106. Wilson is second with 90. None of the starting linebackers has an interception and the three combined for only six sacks all season. On paper, it doesn't appear as though they make many big plays.

"But they're in your face. That's the biggest thing with them," said Randle El. "If they don't get a sack, oh well, but you're not going to get many completions."

The Broncos are third in the NFL in defensive completion percentage (56.1), fourth in defensive passer rating (72.2) and fourth in defensive yards per attempt (6.25).

"They create turnovers, too, and then they're good in the red zone," Randle El said. "They force you into bad passes with their pressure. They bring the blitz a lot. That's their thing.

"Early on you may complete passes for first downs, but in the red zone you can't do that too many times. And then you're forced to run the ball and that plays into their strength – their (second-ranked) run defense."

It sounds as if last week's game plan would be in order: The Steelers might be wise throw on first down in order to avoid the pass rush.

"I don't know," said Kreider. "We've just got to play our game and make adjustments based on what they do. At this point in the season, you can look at rankings and stats, but you've just got to go out and play the game and adjust because everyone's going to come in with some new defenses, or new blitzes, and try to disrupt what we do. We just have to be ready to adjust."

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