Key Match-ups: Steelers-Broncos

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's game between the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos.

QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. FS Brian Dawkins

Pittsburgh's offense lives and dies with Roethlisberger's ability to complete passes at a high rate (70.4, second in the NFL). Denver's surprisingly strong pass rush is predicated by its ability to defend down the field. Denver's defense has allowed just four touchdown passes all year, but were burnt by Baltimore on the road last week, giving up 11-of-18 3rd down attempts.

With Roethlisberger again angling to run segments of Pittsburgh's no-huddle offense, he will have to be wary of the savvy Dawkins, who has been a big part of the team's defensive transformation under first-year coach Josh McDaniel. Dawkins and the rest of the Broncos defense have only given up one 40+ yard play all season, but with the comfort the Steelers are showing in the intermediate passing game, the test will be Dawkins' ability to cover inside the numbers.

Steelers Kicking Team vs. KR Eddie Royal

It's an understatement to suggest Pittsburgh has had a difficult time getting kick returners to the ground this season. They've surrendered kick return touchdowns by Cleveland's Josh Cribbs and Minnesota's Percy Harvin, and spent a good deal of time during the off-week working on coverage. Not to suggest there is a good time to give up a touchdown, but both returns came at times when Pittsburgh needed to close the door.

Denver has been efficient in all phases of the game, and Royal is a big part of their special teams success as well as their passing game. He has one touchdown return to his credit already, and has to be excited about an opportunity to affect this game in two different ways. Considering Denver's ability to move the ball on offense, Royal's ability, or lack thereof, to help win the field position battle will be a telling component of the outcome.

LT Max Starks vs. ROLB Elvis Dumervil

Fortunately, no one is talking about the high level of play being produced by Starks. He kept Bengals DE Antwan Odom at bay pretty much the entire game. He stopped Vikings DE Jared Allen in the Steelers last game. He is a big reason why the Steelers offensive line has out-performed expectations through seven games. Starks will get a unique test in Dumervil, the James-Harrison-like speed rusher. He isn't nearly as big as Allen or Odom, but has top-end quickness, and a relentless motor. Technique will be paramount for Starks, which typically isn't a problem for him.

When Dumervil rains, he pours. In four of Denver's seven games, he has two or more sacks, including four against Cleveland in Week 2. But in the remaining three games, he doesn't have any. The opposing tackles who have shut Dumervil out – Cincinnati's Andre Whitworth, New England's Matt Light and Baltimore's Jared Gaither last week – all have a similar size/quickness proportion to Starks. The key here is the fact Dumervil accounts for 10 of Denver's 23 sacks as a team, and no one else has more than three (DE Darrell Reid).

WR Mike Wallace vs. CB Ty Law

Wallace is one of the most productive Steelers rookies in quite some time. A nifty 40-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Minnesota at the end of the first half went a big way in an even bigger Steelers win. He plays with a sense of intelligence that outweighs even his elite athletic ability, and will be counted on for success in Pittsburgh's 3-WR set.

Law, just signed by Denver Nov. 7, is expected to see action in the team's nickel and dime defensive packages. They released second-year CB Jack Williams due to the huge amount of success teams have had against the Broncos' sub-packages thus far. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco was 12-for-15 against the Broncos' nickel defense in Week 8. If Roethlisberger sees his speed demon receiver lined up under Law, he'll be even more inclined to look his way.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Broncos
x Quarterback  
  Running backs x
  Offensive line x
x Wide receivers  
x Tight ends  
x Defensive line  
x Linebackers  
  Defensive backs x
  Special teams x

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