Pittsburgh vs. Denver: Steelers Must Have Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace Ready
Facing the same team who beat them in the 2011 AFC Wild Card, the Steelers won't have a shot at winning without running back Rashard Mendenhall and receiver Mike Wallace.
Fortunately for the Steel City, both may to suit up against the Denver defense. According to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider of Scout.com:
As reported, Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall elevated the Steelers’ practice tempo Monday to warp speed. On Tuesday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that both, along with outside linebacker James Harrison, could start in the season opener Sunday night at Denver.
“I’ll leave the door open for all of them,” said Tomlin. “We’ll see how they respond to the workload.”
Obviously, this is somewhat relieving for Pittsburgh fans and this certainly helps the potential dynamic of the Steelers offense. With that, let's break down how Mendenhall and Wallace's contributions can help Pittsburgh against a stellar Broncos defense.
What approach is need from Pittsburgh's offense?
The Need to Establish a Ground Game
One major difference from the last time Pittsburgh saw Denver is the replacement of Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning. And regardless of Manning haven't played a regular season game since 2010, he's going to make Denver an efficient passing team.
Well, the best way to help out Dick LeBeau's defense is to keep Manning off the field with a rushing attack. After all, the Broncos did lack against the run in 2011 and the Steelers compiled 156 rushing yards in the postseason contest.
Between the tackles is also the best approach because Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil won't be allowing much outside. Pittsburgh must attack rookie Derek Wolfe early and often which will force Denver to bring another defender into the box.
Still, the Steelers can't all of a sudden abandon the ground until Denver proves to stop it. The more Manning stays off the field the lesser the odds of him finding a rhythm against Pittsburgh's defense.
A few plays off tackle will suffice; though, the majority must remain inside to wear down Wolfe and set Denver up for play-action.
Put Broncos Pass Defense On Its Heels
The Broncos have a much-improved secondary with the likes of Tracy Porter, Jim Leonhard and rookie Omar Bolden. Denver's depth is one of its better traits to the defensive backs, so stretching the Broncos out with Wallace has to occur.
Yes, the running game has to be a threat on any given down. Still, Denver is sound enough to where its playmakers will quickly adjust to Pittsburgh's play calling.
So when the corners show press coverage and a safety tries to time the snap count in the hopes of rolling down late, that's when Wallace goes deep. He's easily one of the fastest and most explosive receivers in the game and the Broncos will be vulnerable when anticipating the run.
Roethlisberger also has to acknowledge that Denver won't leave Wallace in single coverage all night, though, either. At the very least, a safety helping over the top will be offered for such a situation.
The read after that comes from man coverage elsewhere and to target the reliable tight end, Heath Miller. Denver's linebackers aren't the best in coverage and Miller is one of the NFL's best and most complete tight ends.
Expect Big Ben locking on him as the No. 2 read after Wallace, because the Broncos' secondary is capable of isolating the rest of Pittsburgh's receiving corps man-to-man.
Remain Balanced to Protect Big Ben
Pittsburgh's offensive line remains the weakest link.
The 2011 NFL season was an atrocity as Big Ben was sacked 45 times, including the playoffs and the line allowed 47 total. That's almost three sacks per game through 17 games and Denver included a forced fumble and interception as well.
Slamming on the ground just keeps Miller and Dumervil at bay, because Pittsburgh can't get in strict passing situations too often. If that occurs then Roethlisberger becomes a sitting duck inside his own pocket—deja vu then sets in for an encore performance.
Denver is aggressive and will play aggressively. Establishing some sort of traditional attack—no matter how minimal—is imperative to keep the Broncos honest. Play-action then becomes a given thereafter and the rush gets held in check.
And when having Big Ben drop back, quick developing routes also help negate the rush. Whether it's a pop-pass to Miller or any receiver on a slant, the Steelers can't allow Roethlisberger to hold on to the rock. Doing so just increases more sack opportunities.
Wallace on the fade route or deep post from a three-step drop is the best option, because his speed can get down the field quickly. This stretches out Denver and allows Roethlisberger to use his arm, because he's strong enough to make a deep throw on a fast release from the snap.
Combining all the elements and the Steel City must present a multidimensional attack, otherwise the Broncos will force turnovers from causing an immense amount of quarterback pressure.
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