The Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2012 regular season slate with a game in Denver against the Broncos. The contest has plenty of story lines and things to watch for when the action starts. Not the least of those items is that the last time the Steelers played a meaningful game, they lost to these same Broncos.
Here's a look at five keys to Sunday night's game for the Steelers, who begin their 80th season with Super Bowl aspirations once again.
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There's a lot at play here. This is a revenge game on some levels. You'll never get Mike Tomlin or his players to admit that publicly, but there would be nothing sweeter than sending the Broncos to the showers with a loss late Sunday night.
The Steelers are usually good at rising to the occasion. They have far more difficulty beating teams that aren't as good as they are for some reason. But Denver holds a lot of problems for them.
They'll be facing Peyton Manning, who has just as much to prove as his opponent. They'll be without one of their best stalwart defenders in Ryan Clark. They have questions and injuries on both sides of the ball as well. Any one of those things could sink them.
Capturing the moment on national television will be a huge key. If the Steelers can do that, they'll be a near-impossible foe for Denver.
The Denver Broncos have a good pass rush. They'll be led by guys like Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. They will be after Ben Roethlisberger and his ability to make plays with his arm. Defeating them is where all of this begins for the offense.
The running game will be part of this effort. A staunch rushing attack that can negate the pass rush will force the Broncos to adapt their plan. The more effectively Pittsburgh's backs run the ball, the easier it will be for Ben Roethlisberger to drop back and throw it.
The screen passing game that was so successful in the preseason will also change the Broncos plan if effective. A screen game will negate the blitz by exploiting the open spots created by rushers coming into the pocket.
If the Steelers can get those two elements going, the only thing left will be for the offensive line to give Roethlisberger enough time. They've played better and better as the preseason has gone on and should be fine in this role.
Just as nobody in Pittsburgh will admit that some of this game is going to be about revenge, nobody in Denver, not even Peyton Manning himself, will admit that they're a bit nervous about their new franchise quarterback facing off against one of the league's most-feared pass rushes.
LaMarr Woodley and company can't wait to get a shot at Manning, who's rarely been very good against the Steelers. Anyone who wants some reference on that can watch the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff contest between the Steelers and Colts. Manning spent large parts of that game smelling the grass.
The Steelers aren't home free, however. Manning is a great quarterback. He is working with receivers who lack the explosiveness he's used to seeing from Reggie Wayne, but they are still dangerous. These are the same receivers that torched Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season.
Keeping Manning off balance and guessing and containing the receivers will defeat Denver, which does not boast a rushing attack that seems like a credible threat.
The big-play threats are here. Mike Wallace is back and should be ready to go. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Rainey all will make waves in the passing game. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman can deliver on the ground. This is a team with a ton of offensive talent.
We haven't even mentioned Heath Miller or Jerricho Cotchery yet either, nor have we talked about what Roethlisberger can do on his own.
We also haven't said anything about the defense, where Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor all can make the big turnover happen.
Big plays will turn this game. I'd expect that both teams will struggle to move the ball early. Then I would expect both will adjust a little and begin making some dents. Which team can put the ball in the end zone will determine who comes away with their first win.
The Steelers have more talent in this department. Whether or not they can utilize it is the question. Turnovers kill a team. If the Steelers can trick Manning into a couple big mistakes, his night will end the way he doesn't want it to end.
Just as the Steelers must work hard at forcing turnovers, they must be diligent in preventing them as well. The same goes for penalties, particularly on offense.
The Steelers were 21st in the NFL in scoring. Putting the ball in the end zone is its own point of emphasis for Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, but looking at the tape last year, many of the team's most promising drives ended when a penalty backed the team up and killed momentum.
The Broncos pass rush was already discussed, but their secondary is no slouch. The chief complaint about them is that they're old. They are dangerous, though. If Ben Roethlisberger or one of his receivers or runners makes even a small mistake, this team will capitalize on it.
Peyton Manning may or may not be the quarterback who struck fear into opponents for over a decade with the Colts. Still, I wouldn't give him too many chances to take the ball. That's asking for defeat.