Steelers wary of Broncos' linebackers

PITTSBURGH – The Denver Broncos are 27th in the NFL in points scored, but that ranking could skyrocket Sunday against the Steelers because of one favorable matchup.

No, it's not the Jake Plummer-led passing attack that worries the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And, no, the Broncos aren't much of a threat to run the ball against the Steelers' front seven.

But the Steelers must stop the Broncos' linebackers from scoring. That's no joke, considering how often the Steelers turn the ball over and how well the Broncos' linebackers are playing.

In fact, the buzz is that Al Wilson, Ian Gold and D.J. Williams comprise the NFL's best linebacking unit.

"That's what they say right now," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "At least that's what the media people are saying."

It's not just the media, though.

"Those linebackers are special," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

"Oh, yeah. I hear it all the time that they're the best in the league," said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote. "They say they're the best. We'll see on Sunday."

The gauntlet has been thrown down – at least by the Steelers for the Steelers. But the linebackers are at the crux of the Broncos' success. The 5-2 Broncos had allowed only 44 points before the Indianapolis Colts rang up 34 against them last week. Still, only one team – the Chicago Bears – has allowed fewer points than the Broncos this season. Much of it's due to their linebackers.

"They definitely play fast and they come downhill," said Steelers guard Alan Faneca. "They read plays very well, which makes them even faster than they already are with their natural speed."

Weakside backer Ian Gold led the Broncos with 106 tackles last season, 16 more than middle backer Al Wilson. Gold leads Wilson by one tackle at the top of this season's leaderboard. Strong side backer D.J. Williams is a distant third. None of the three linebackers has a sack.

"I think Ian's probably the fastest of the group," Faneca said. "Al's got a good nose for the ball and does a good job getting there. He sniffs things out and puts himself in good position to make a play."

Wilson has been the Broncos' captain the last six years. A four-time Pro Bowler, Wilson was named All-Pro last season for the first time in his eight-year career. He was a first-round draft pick after captaining the University of Tennessee to the 1998 national championship.

"I was a sophomore that year," said Steelers wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. "Al was the man. He was our motivational guy, our inspirational guy. He was The Guy. He played big against big teams, especially Florida. He had like three sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. He pretty much beat Florida by himself that year. He was The Man on that team."

Gold also played in a Pro Bowl, but only as a special-teams ace in 2001. He's long since graduated to starting linebacker and has fully recovered from a torn ACL in 2003. Gold was drafted out of the University of Michigan in the second round in 2000. His successor in Ann Arbor was Foote.

"He's a great player," Foote said. "He was good at Michigan, and that's why he's in the league making plays."

Williams was another high draft pick by the Broncos. He was taken in the first round out of the University of Miami in 2004. He's started ever since and led the linebackers with 10 tackles against the Steelers in last season's AFC Championship game. Williams also shared a sack of Ben Roethlisberger with Trevor Pryce.

"I played with him for three years," said Steelers rookie Orien Harris. "He's a superb linebacker and a great individual. On the field he's fast, strong, focused – everything you want in a linebacker. I've seen him do everything."

Considering their struggling offense, the Broncos' linebackers may have to do everything against the Steelers.

"They can run. They really can," said Cowher. "They're not real big, per se, but they're very well coordinated in what they do and they run very well to the ball."

The Steelers just hope the ball's not on the ground when they get there.

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