The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2012 journey at the Mile High City, squaring off against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in a contest that promises to be among the most highly anticipated (and viewed) matchups of the entire season.
While most playoff rematches garner intrigue that is associated with redemption, the truth is that the Steelers—albeit optimistic about avenging last season's early postseason ousting—will be facing a Denver team with an entirely new look and approach, at least offensively.
Indeed, the media focus will revolve heavily around Manning's return to action. Yet, there will be many other interesting facets to observe when these two potential AFC heavyweights kick off the Sunday Night Football schedule.
Here are 10 things for fans to watch for as the Men of Steel attempt to leave Colorado feeling a mile high.
In last year's playoff loss, Isaac Redman averaged over seven yards per carry against a Broncos defense that ranked 22nd against the run.
Furthermore, the Steelers' running game has done a great job of establishing itself at Invesco Field, as the Black and Gold offense has produced an average of 149.3 rushing yards in their last three trips to Denver.
While nobody doubts the presence of a fine blocking guard like David DeCastro would have only further aided such an encore, the Black and Gold will just have to make due with what they've got.
Besides, last season's solid rushing effort came despite the absence of Maurkice Pouncey, who is ready to go as the anchor of the line at center.
A repeated successful effort on the ground will help the Men of Steel immensely, going beyond just the standard analysis of a "better balanced offense."
First, the transition to a new offense can be difficult to make, particularly if early-season struggles invite naysayers or allow a slight lack of confidence to creep into the huddle. A solid ground game takes some of the pressure of of the quarterback and receivers in producing well in the new system early, particularly by opening up play-action and—as mentioned above—keeping the opposing defense on its toes.
Secondly, success via the run will keep the defensive line honest, whereas a struggle in the department will allow Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller the increased luxury of focusing their attack on Big Ben in the Steelers backfield. A two-fold problem, a lack of running game puts the ball in Roethlisberger's hands more often and gives the two-headed monster a centralized focus against which to try to make its impact. Running the ball helps to deter a sustained pass rush.
Thirdly, any additional first downs or seconds eaten off the clock are precious moments in which the ball remains with Big Ben... and not in Peyton Manning's palms.
Lastly, despite their improved play during spurts of the "Tebow days," the Broncos didn't rank favorably against the pass last year either. By forcing their defense to honor each phase of the game, Denver cannot handicap its efforts in the defensive backfield, giving a developing passing game more time and space to take advantage of their speed and quickness.
Actually, there is a fifth bullet point as to why effective running (and solid offensive play all around) will benefit the team, specifically related to the high altitude conditions, but that will be addressed later in the article.
With Jonathan Dwyer, who arrived at camp in tip-top shape for the first time, and Isaac Redman, the Steelers will almost assuredly run a committee approach throughout the season, even after the return of the injured Rashard Mendenhall.
Naturally, the best way to earn more carries is to get the job done with the attempts provided. I can't think of more incentive for a group of backs that many people will be keeping a scrutinizing eye on.
Let me simply restate a popular, rightfully so, sentiment regarding the Steelers' defense this upcoming season: getting more pressure and, subsequently, turnovers is a must! That will be a goal for the group throughout 2012.
However, this point focuses more on the defensive strategy against the new-look Broncos' offense specifically.
Nobody will confuse Tim Tebow's arm with Peyton Manning's cannon, and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, that may be psychologically fruitful.
While the defensive game-plan last season clearly hinged on stopping the run and applying immediate pressure in the Denver backfield, it was clear well before halftime that the strategy wasn't working, even with recurring safety presence in the box.
The lack of pressure set the Steelers up for failure, but the real killer hinged on bad strategy. Unfortunately, though Tebow may not have the throwing prowess of his peers, he is still a great athlete with a strong arm, just not an NFL arm.
Tebow pulled out some close games in the final minutes last year, and he needs to get credit for those accomplishments. Still, notice that those affairs needed to be low scoring. Why? The simple answer is that the Denver offense was largely ineffective with him at the helm.
The more developed reason for the struggles, particularly relevant in today's passing league, stemmed from Tebow's inabilities to make accurate, intermediate throws into tight passing windows while accounting for safety coverage.
Or, in other words, to sustain offense with his arm against the standard NFL defense.
By bringing up the safety without getting pressure, the Steelers effectively took away an element of struggle for the Denver "passer," (scoff!) all the while giving him the time in the pocket he needed to strike down the field against clear man coverage.
On his first third down completion of the game, he had six seconds to wait for his receiver to get behind the man-to-man coverage. No corner can be expected to keep solid man coverage against an NFL wideout for so long.
It was a recipe for failure, and while many don't understand the x's and o's of where things went awry beyond blaming the corners, I do agree with the layman on one account: the defense was overconfident and the strategy reeked of this overconfidence.
NOT THIS TIME.
The notion of "if Tebow did that to Pittsburgh, imagine what Manning will do" is fallacious. Why?
Because, against Peyton Manning, the Steelers' defense won't implement such a foolhardy strategy... and can't. For all of the danger that is Peyton's right arm, the Steelers know exactly what they're up against in Manning.
As a whole, I believe that an understanding of the opponent and an improved scheme will result in the secondary being able to have success, unlike when they were hung out to dry months ago.
Personally, I think Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis will rank among the most effective corner tandems in the league, and it will start will giving Peyton fits on Sunday night.
Why not get the obvious out of the way? Manning-mania will be the reality of the upcoming week, so just be prepared for the hoopla. Capicé?
Besides, it's a quarterback driven league, Peyton's presence is a huge ratings boost for NBC (who surely salivated over the Week 1 network schedule layout), and no fan can honestly say they're not curious about the state of Manning's game entering the regular season.
So, for those who can already hear themselves saying, "You announcers do realize that more than one team is playing in this game, right?," allow me to prepare you for reality:
Peyton-a-palooza is going down on Sunday night. Save yourself the pain of rolling your eyes so hard that you pull a muscle: it's happening!
Be ready for it, and realize that the best way for the Steelers to prevent it is by putting on a solid performance of their own. After all, if anybody has the devices to preempt "Manning Night Football," it's the Steelers themselves.
If nothing else, the early rigors of returning to the fast and ferocious NFL game could be deemed a major benefit for the Steelers. Getting No. 18 before his feet—and confidence—get under him can only help.
As it concerns Manning's return, the questions are many:
How will he respond to pressure in the backfield, or more specifically the first noteworthy contact he endures?
What type of power does he have in his arm after his hiatus, or more importantly, after multiple neck surgeries?
Will his timing be off?
How will Manning's chemistry be with his new receivers...
...and what benefit will be derived from his familiarity with a few old faces, namely Brandon Stokely?
How will offensive balance between running and passing be affected?
And, as it concerns the passionate, loyal, and ever-biased (proudly biased!) Steelers Country, the biggest question of all is:
Can the Steelers get after Manning, stay disciplined in the secondary, and make his return game a struggle?
For the second consecutive meaningful game, the Steelers play in Denver.
This was unfortunate news for Ryan Clark, who suffers from a rare sickle cell trait that makes playing at high altitude a potentially deadly proposition.
The last time he played in Denver, the Mile High City sank him a mile low. His body reacted violently to the thin air, and he became ill, ultimately losing his gall bladder and spleen due to oxygen deprivation.
In his place, Ryan Mundy will get the nod, and the backup safety will need to bring a heightened alertness into Invesco Field. He'll be tacking the responsibilities—including some play-calling—of the absent Mr. Clark.
While everyone roots for Mundy's success, it's easy to realize Clark's presence will be missed once again.
While he is known for his huge hits and deterrent presence over the middle of the field, he is also very underrated as a stop-gap in the secondary when the ultimate hybrid player, Troy Polamalu, decides to take one of his calculated risks.
More than just a great counterpart to No. 43, Clark's absence in Denver to open the season will force the team to forfeit one of its greatest individual players, regardless of his merit with a peer. Statistics show Clark as the busiest Pittsburgh defender, recording over 100 tackles last season while being on the field for over 98 percent of the team's snaps.
Peyton Manning (There's that name again, eh? Sorry, but it's practically unavoidable.) is a cerebral assassin who hones in on every opponent weakness and strategic advantage at his disposal.
In Indianapolis, he successfully ran a rhythmic and well-organized no-huddle offense, and he has even more incentive to institute the method with the Broncos. After all...
In the rarefied air, with opponents acclimating to the conditions and catching their breath...well, why give them any reason to catch that breath?
Truth be told, it's all the more reason that the offense needs to have a solid all-around showing against a mediocre defense during this game. The combination of the conditions and the opposing field general will be challenging enough. Establishing an edge in time of possession will be key.
The offense can pace itself; the defense has to keep pace with the Broncos' offense. It is far more important for the defense to have time to rest than the offense. The difference is a matter of control, an ability to dictate the tempo.
Anytime No. 18 sees an opponent sucking wind, he'll be looking to take advantage with the hurry-up. Keeping every defender fresh is vital.
With many fresh faces and changing roles on the team, the opening game will mark the first true glimpse of how talent will be utilized.
At nose tackle, it appears Alameda Ta'amu needs some time to develop, which is understandable. That said, the state of the rookie's development in addition to Hampton's status would have seemed much worse news a month ago. As it stands, a new viable starter has presented himself emphatically!
At the most important position for a successful 3-4 defense, it appears that Steve McLendon is (and should be) the incumbent starter. Aptly nicknamed "the Beast" after a ri-donk-ulous preseason, McLendon has changed many minds, including my own, regarding his status as the anchor of the defensive line. If he can handle a full schedule and stay healthy, he may earn his keep as the defensive middle-man all season.
Even if Casey Hampton is prepared to play, I feel it would be a mistake not to stick with McLendon. After being released five previous times in the NFL before finding success in the Steel City, the nose tackle enters 2012 as one of the franchise's top feel-good stories. Hopefully, feel good and "play good" are conducive terms.
Leonard Pope is a big-bodied tight end, whose size, height, moderate pass-catching numbers, and blocking skills should prove a valuable commodity to the Steelers.
Used primarily as a blocking tight end in the past, Pope has a few advantages at the start of the season. He is familiar with Todd Haley's system (having played almost exclusively for Haley during his career), the suspension of Weslye Saunders should provide more playing time to start the campaign, and his stature and pass-catching statistics make him a solid goal line target for a team that is particularly keen on improving their red zone efficiency.
Keenan Lewis will start across from Ike Taylor at the opposite corner spot. Fans hope his superior man coverage skills and heightened physical presence make him a more consistent defensive back than William Gay.
Chris Rainey and Baron Batch are electrifying runners whose roles could range anywhere from intermittent contributors to difference-making playmakers.
On special teams, Rainey is expected to make an impact, hopefully continuing the solid play seen last season out of Antonio Brown, who ranked second in the AFC last year in most important punt return statistics.
Yet, both runners are adept pass catchers, particularly Rainey whose soft hands were often the source of awe during training camp. On one particular play at St. Vincent College, I vividly remember a dump-off to Rainey in the flat, who made a one-handed catch that was thrown behind him while changing direction, all the while keeping his momentum and getting back across the field at a blistering pace.
His vision was also on display, as the lack of defensive presence (they aggressively bit on the original direction of the play) around the right tackle resulted in what would have been a long touchdown run.
The real focus should be on utilizing the two blistering backs' speed out of the backfield, both on screen plays and by designing mismatches against linebackers and safeties. How many times has Ray Rice frustrated the Steelers on a potential game-changing down?
With any luck, the Steelers will get to return the favor in 2012.
To state it simply, Todd Haley's new offense gets its first full workout in less than a week.
Eyes across Steelers Country will watch with great scrutiny to see how the unit is meshing. While there are some concerns on the offensive side of the ball, namely an injury-plagued (what else is new?) offensive line, there is certainly enough talent to warrant fans' expectations for a productive transition.
With the running game already addressed, let's shift our focus to the passing attack.
The most glaring keynote of the passing game is the return of Mike Wallace. There will be more on Wallace later in the slideshow.
The good news is that "B-B-Bennie and his Jets" are a tight bunch who have spent countless reps with each other. Likewise, though Sanders and all of the wideouts will return to their originally anticipated roles, these are not roles in which they were not already established and familiar. Who knows?
In the case of an injury, Sanders' time across from Brown could prove invaluable.
Beyond timing, many fans are curious about what the offense will "look like," a simple way of asking what the offensive identity of the football team will become.
Fans have been clamoring, wondering how well the talent on the team will be utilized. Specifically, many have pointed out the lack of presence in the passing game by Heath Miller to-date.
With the actual playbook on display and the true intentions of the team in action against Denver, a more accurate portrayal of the Haley offense should either appease or alarm the curious. And, by "the curious," I mean every last football-loving soul in the Steel City!
One key role to keep an eye on is that of third receiver. Emmanuel Sanders is fast and elusive in space, and he creates a matchup nightmare inside. Jericho Cotchery is a sure-handed, physical receiver whose skills are conducive to playing the slot.
Personally, I feel the two should rotate the role based on the offense's field position. Inside the 20-yard line, with a congested red zone where separation speed can be slightly negated, I think the raw tenacity and experience of Jericho Cotchery will pay off. However, between the 20's, Sanders is an ideal candidate to wreak havoc with his quickness.
Speed kills. Nobody doubts that.
If he can get up top over the Denver secondary, I have no doubt that Mike Wallace will have a pristine deep ball land right into his waiting arms courtesy of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.
Anytime the defensive backfield falls asleep, No. 17 can burn them, no matter the system in place. Last year, in a contest against the Colts, the camera panned in on Big Ben, whose wry smile and nod to Wallace served as prelude to an 80-yard touchdown bomb.
At the end of the year, Wallace's production dropped dramatically. Whether this was the result of Ben's injury, personal regression, or defensive adjustments—though I'd find that surprising in light of Brown's increased production over Hines Ward—is debatable.
In truth, his decreased numbers late last year don't alarm me. However, his holdout does.
In fact, of all the receivers, the one whose holdout I would have found most distressing is Wallace, who may be the fastest wideout, but isn't the most talented. Why my worry?
My concern is with the intermediate-level passing game; it was a real concern prior to his holdout, and my wariness about his readiness at the sticks is now increased. Wallace is widely regarded as an average-at-best route runner, particularly underneath secondary coverage, and his timing and precision will certainly be impacted in the first week.
Maybe I'll be proven wrong. I HOPE SO.
However, on an offense that has such an important task at creating first downs and keeping its defense off the field, the timing and communication between the two veterans will be somewhat affected.
Stopping the run is important against any offense, but it is doubly vital against the game's best quarterbacks. If you allow the NFL's top-tier field generals the luxury of a great ground attack as a deterrent, keeping your defense guessing and thus indecisive, the end result is almost always bad.
Sometimes, the Steelers will bring additional run support into the box. Other times, that luxury will not be available. There is still one constant.
The front three.
Brett "the Beard" Keisel. Evander "Ziggy" Hood. And, to the best of my knowledge, Steve "the Beast" McLendon.
These three men have a vital task: to dominate the linemen in front of them. The reason is two-fold.
First, as mentioned above, containing the Denver rushing attack, led by running back Willis McGahee, is an important objective. This is particularly true for a unit looking to regain its swagger against the run; for the first time in a number of seasons, the defense allowed runners four yards per carry in 2011, also surrendering multiple 100-yard games!
Secondly, and just as importantly, solid play by the three down linemen will produce the ever-important rushing lanes that will be needed to apply pressure on Manning in the backfield.
With James Harrison's injury, among other health setbacks that have affected the team's depth at linebacker, the aid of a solid effort from the front three will be a huge assist in the team meeting its goals of stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.
"Yo, Peyton! Fear the beard!"
Nobody recently kicked an old man and his goat out of Heinz Field? Right?
Who else was bummed out when David DeCastro, the team's first-round draft selection and the alleged "next Alan Faneca," was laid out on the field in Buffalo, writhing in agony?
Though there is certainly a far more professional way to say it, my frustration with the team's ill-fated attempts to make large scale improvements along the offensive line can be aptly summed up in two words: it sucks! Banality at its best, but accurate nonetheless.
It's the same story every year, and it's one of the most important factors heading into 2012. How will the offensive line perform?
Truthfully, this writer simply doesn't have the energy to reexamine the offensive front, a task that has been required for the men and women covering Steelers football for a slew of consecutive seasons.
This was supposed to be the year that the team focused on developing the line with position-centric personnel, focusing more on specialized talents opposed to diverse linemen who could be plugged in anywhere at a moment's notice. Instead, both Adams and DeCastro—two outstanding value picks made against all odds in April—have suffered knee injuries.
To boot, Sean Spence, the team's third selection at linebacker, has also suffered devastating ligament tears.
That's right! All three top picks from the 2012 NFL Draft are out with injured knees. What did this city ever do to justify such a curse?
Dear Football Gods,
I don't ask for toys.
And I don't ask for wealth.
So, at the least you could grant
The Steelers some health!
I'm not a prideful man,
And I'm not hedonistic.
So please cut me some slack
And stop being so sadistic!
You've taken an ankle.
You've injured some toes.
You've torn many knees.
You've even broken a nose!
I will not ask again
For a fast-track to Heaven.
Just lay off our I.R.
And bring the 'Burgh trophy seven!
Here's hoping for a win and (at long last) some sustained health. May the team make it out of Denver unscathed!