Two straight Pittsburgh Steeler previews on this blog have been for games against the Denver Broncos. But this isn't the same Bronco team that the Steelers were upset by in the playoffs last year. Who would have ever thought that signing Peyton Manning would actually detract your media attention? Tim Tebow is gone. The offense is much more conventional. It's a different animal this time around.
Steelers Offense vs. Broncos Defense: Throw the preseason out the window. Whatever it is that Todd Haley's offense is going to be was not shown in practice games. We're going to see on Sunday what the identity of this team is going to be. Are they going to attempt to go back to a more balanced attack and try to run the ball more and more effectively or are they going to be more pass happy? It's impossible to know the answer to that question right now.
One aspect of the offense that I do know the answer to is that age is not going to prevent Ben Roethlisberger from playing the way that he has played for years. Whether ownership or the coaching staff wants him to tweak the way he plays, it's never going to happen. Does his style of play put him at risk to get injured? Of course it does. But becoming more conventional makes him less effective. He's going to continue to hold the ball for a long time and wait for things to develop. He's going to continue to scramble and make plays outside of the pocket.
That brings us to the offensive line. With the injury to David DeCastro, the line goes from being a potential strength to back to being just average. That's not necessarily a huge deal. The Steelers have had success with mediocre lines in recent history. It doesn't drastically change the passing game because Roethlisberger creates more time for himself than his line does. It does effect the run game though. While the Steelers have a large cast of running backs, they don't have anyone that is going to create their own space besides Chris Rainey and he is far from a feature back.
Steelers Defense vs. Broncos Offense: This is where you can throw everything from the last time these two teams met out. All the hallucinogenic drugs in the world couldn't make me see Manning running a read option offense. Everything is going to be a lot more conventional. It's all a matter of what Manning is going to look like. He's not the youngest player in the world and he is coming off of missing an entire season because of a neck injury.
Putting pressure on Manning is going to be important and that could be a problem. Despite having the best defense in the league last season, the Steelers did not get to the quarterback or force turnovers at a rate in which they are used to. James Harrison is unlikely to play due to an injured back so Chris Carter will be inserted into the lineup. Since he is an unknown, a lot of the focus of the blocking schemes will be shifted to the other side where LaMarr Woodley is. Carter is going to have to be effective. I don't care how rusty Manning is. If he has all day to throw, he will tear this defense apart.
Of course, with the game being played in Denver, Ryan Clark will not be available because of his sickle cell trait. Ryan Mundy will be inserted into the lineup. The most annoying thing about that is hearing his name pronounced Ryan Monday all game. Anyway, Clark is one of those guys that you don't realize how important he is until he is gone. His solid play is what allows Troy Polamalu to improvise and play all over the field. Without that, Polamalu is forced to play more conventionally which is another thing that makes putting pressure on Manning difficult.
Prediction: I don't feel particularly great about this game. There are a bunch of unknowns for both teams on both sides of the ball. I think that's why I'm so excited to watch this game. I really have no idea what to expect. With so much uncertainty, my prediction is based mostly off of being a fan than actual analysis. Most of Denver's wins last year came on the back of a defense that played over their heads. Assuming they come back to earth, Roethlisberger should be able to exploit that enough. Steelers 23, Broncos 20.