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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (5-2) at Denver (6-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Fans in attendance at Invesco Field at Mile High to watch the Denver Broncos play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night will have the opportunity to witness something unique. Namely, how the home team responds after a defeat.
There was no precedent for such a notion during the Broncos' first six games, as first-year head coach Josh McDaniels led the NFL's most surprising team to its first 6-0 start since the 1998 season. A combination of efficient offense, with quarterback Kyle Orton carefully leading the charge, and a revamped defense guided by new coordinator Mike Nolan, had helped Denver to shoot out of the gate and take a commanding lead in the AFC West.
But the first blip on the Broncos' radar arrived last Sunday, when Denver came off its bye and was drilled, 30-7, by a desperate Baltimore Ravens club.
Denver's offensive group managed just 200 yards on the day, including just 152 yards on 23-of-37 passing for Orton, while Denver stars Brandon Marshall (4 receptions, 24 yards) and Knowshon Moren (12 total touches, 35 yards) were held firmly in check on the day.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos allowed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to complete 20-of-25 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown without a turnover, and Nolan's unit had some trouble limiting the effectiveness of running back Ray Rice (28 total touches, 108 yards, 1 TD) as well.
The Broncos special teams provided for a negative moment as well, allowing Ravens rookie kickoff returner Lardarius Webb to set the tone for the final 30 minutes by bringing back the opening kickoff of the second half for a 95-yard touchdown.
One week later, the Broncos will try to move to 4-0 at home on the season, while proving their previous magic still exists by taking down the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers.
Pittsburgh (5-2) remains very much in the playoff and AFC North title mixes thanks to a four-game winning streak, which was extended most recently on Oct. 25, when the Steelers handed Brett Favre and the Vikings (27-17) their only loss of the 2009 season to date.
A pair of huge defensive plays in the fourth quarter helped the Steelers head into their bye week on a winning note.
Early in the frame, Favre was stripped of the football by Steelers end Brett Keisel, and the ball was scooped up by linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who rambled for a 77-yard touchdown to help push the advantage to 20-10.
After the Vikings had narrowed the lead to 20-17, and Favre had driven the offense to the Pittsburgh 19-yard-line with 1:15 to play - in reach of a game- tying score, at least - the Steelers sealed the game when a screen pass attempt to Chester Taylor bounced off the usually sure-handed running back's mitts and into the arms of Steelers linebacker Keyaron Fox, who took it 82 yards to the house as a delirious Heinz Field crowd rejoiced.
The Broncos contest will be the start of a critical two-game stretch for the Steelers, who will head back home to face the surprising AFC North-contending Bengals on a short week next Sunday.
Denver has a 13-6-1 advantage in the all-time regular season series with Pittsburgh, and has won its last three regular season meetings with the Steelers. The Broncos were 31-28 home winners when the teams last met, in 2007. The Steelers are 0-4 in regular season matchups played in Denver since recording its last such win, in 1990.
The Broncos and Steelers have split six games in the postseason, including a 34-17 Pittsburgh win in the 2005 AFC Championship from Invesco Field at Mile High. The Broncos had won the previous postseason meeting between the teams, a 24-21 win at Three Rivers Stadium in the 1997 Championship. Denver also won AFC Divisional Playoff matchups in 1977 (34-21) and 1989 (24-23), while losing Divisional Playoff games in 1978 (33-10) 1984 (24-17).
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 0-1 against the Broncos, while Denver's McDaniels will be meeting both Tomlin and Pittsburgh for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Steelers are still associated in many ways with a hard-nosed power running attack, a passing game that ranks fifth in the NFL (276 yards per game) has been the primary engine that has driven the team's offense this season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2062 passing yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) has a terrific 102.6 passer rating and 70.4 completion percentage, though the 20 sacks the two-time Super Bowl-winner has suffered through seven games are somewhat troubling. Roethlisberger threw for a season-low 175 yards on 14-of-26 passing last time out, though he also accounted for the club's lone offensive touchdown of the day when he found Mike Wallace (21 receptions, 2 TD) on a 40- yard pass play in the second quarter. Wideouts Hines Ward (42 receptions, 2 TD) and Santonio Holmes (30 receptions, 1 TD) have been the team's top targets on the year, and tight end Heath Miller (40 receptions, 4 TD) logged a team-best six catches against the Vikings in Week 7. The Steelers running game is now led by second-year-pro Rashard Mendenhall (418 rushing yards, 4 TD), who has not topped 100 yards since a breakout 165-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Chargers in Week 4. Backup Willie Parker (187 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 1 TD) has had just eight carries since the end of September.
Roethlisberger and company will be going up against a Broncos team that leads the NFL in total defense (266.7 yards per game) as Week 9 begins, though as mentioned, the Broncos did show some flaws against the Ravens attack last week. Given the Steelers' affinity for throwing the football, pressure will be on cornerbacks Champ Bailey (33 tackles, 1 INT), Jack Williams (14 tackles), and rookie Alphonso Smith (8 tackles) to handle the Steelers receivers, with safeties Brian Dawkins (46 tackles) and Renaldo Hill (30 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) lending support. Dawkins and Hill combined for 15 tackles in Baltimore. The Denver pass rush has been excellent for most of the year, with outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (26 tackles) notching a whopping 10 of the team's 23 sacks through seven weeks. The Broncos had two sacks in Baltimore last week, though Dumervil was shut out in that category. A run-stopping group that ranks a healthy third in the league (86.1 yards per game) has been led by players such as active end Kenny Peterson (21 tackles) and sure-tackling inside linebackers D.J. Williams (57 tackles, 2 sacks) and Andra Davis (47 tackles, 2 sacks). Williams and Davis combined for 20 stops against the Ravens.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Broncos have been remarkably efficient this season, throwing just one interception that came on a Hail-Mary play at the end of the first half against the Patriots, some Denver supporters would like to see Orton (1617 passing yards, 9 TD, 1 INT) take more chances down the field to talented wideouts Marshall (33 receptions, 4 TD), Eddie Royal (20 receptions), and Jabar Gaffney (21 receptions). Orton averaged just 6.6 yards per completion against the Ravens last Sunday, and only nine of his 23 completions went to wideouts. Running back Correll Buckhalter (329 rushing yards, 1 TD, 18 receptions) had a team-high six grabs (totaling just 30 yards), and tight ends Daniel Graham (15 receptions) and Tony Scheffler (17 receptions, 2 TD) combined for four catches. Moreno (420 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 3 TD) and the running game will also try to get untracked against the Steelers after a less-than-stellar effort in Baltimore that yielded just 66 yards on the ground. The Broncos have done an outstanding job on the offensive line this season, allowing just 11 sacks on the year including two last week, though there will be a change up front for the foreseeable future. With right tackle Ryan Harris out with two dislocated toes, second-year-pro Tyler Polumbus will make his first career start this week. The Broncos are 11th in NFL rushing offense (123.1 yards per game), 16th in passing offense (221.4 yards per game) as Week 9 commences.
The big story for the Steelers defense leading up to this contest involves the status of free safety Ryan Clark (39 tackles, 2 INT), who appears unlikely to play due to a rare sickle-cell trait that is aggravated at high altitudes. After his most recent appearance in Denver, Clark needed emergency surgery to remove his spleen due to the ailment. He is likely to be replaced this week by Tyrone Carter (11 tackles, 1 sack), with Troy Polamalu (16 tackles, 2 INT) taking his normal role at strong safety and cornerbacks Ike Taylor (34 tackles) and William Gay (35 tackles, 1 sack) taking on primary responsibility for slowing Marshall and Royal. The normally-staunch Steelers pass rush, led by outside linebackers James Harrison (41 tackles, 8 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (14 tackles, 2 sacks), has accounted for 21 sacks thus far on the year. Harrison had two sacks of the normally well-protected Favre last time out. It should come as no surprise that Pittsburgh is No. 1 in the league against the run (76.6 yards per game) as Week 9 commences, with nose tackle Casey Hampton (19 tackles, 1 sack) helping to set the tone in the trenches and inside linebackers James Farrior (48 tackles, 2 sacks) and Lawrence Timmons (29 tackles, 3 sacks) working behind them. Farrior posted a team-high 15 tackles and a sack against Minnesota, helping limit Adrian Peterson to a pedestrian 69 yards on 18 carries.
Though Roethlisberger had not previously been a lead-pipe cinch fantasy option due to the Steelers' preference to run the football, coupled with low touchdown numbers for the QB, the strong-armed signal-caller has been a bankable start thus far in 2009. "Big Ben" has thrown for 276 or more yards in five of his seven starts this season, and has tossed multiple touchdowns in four of his past five. Top targets Ward, Holmes, and Miller are also worth playing, and Wallace has become a decent flex play as well. Mendenhall will continue to get the bulk of the carries until further notice, and is a good start, while it looks like Parker now belongs on benches or the waiver wire. The playmaking Steelers defense remains a strong play as well, even against a quarterback as efficient as Orton.
The strength of the Pittsburgh "D" makes opening with a lot of the Broncos' principles somewhat problematic. The game-manager Orton has had some big games this year but is a shaky play, and receivers Marshall and Royal have been less than consistent as well. Use all of those players, and Moreno as well, at your own risk. The Broncos defense remains a decent play, as the Steelers rarely play turnover-free football and Roethlisberger figures to be sacked a few times by the Denver pass rush. The strong-legged Matt Prater is also worth considering.
Tomlin has received major praise for his ability to prepare a football team, and with more than two weeks to size up the Broncos, you can bet that the Steelers will come out with a strong game plan to beat surprising Denver. The Broncos offense has been more efficient than explosive, and it's going to be difficult for them to stay out of mistakes against the attacking Steelers "D". The Broncos defense is very good too, and isn't going to let Pittsburgh run up and down the field, but the bet here is that the Steelers get a couple more short fields than does Denver, and wins the game accordingly.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 17, Broncos 12
11/05 18:16:43 ET