The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Denver Broncos on Sunday night in the team's first game of the 2012 NFL season. I could, of course, sit here and detail the ways the Steelers can pull out a win over the Broncos, the team which defeated them in last year's playoffs (albeit with a vastly different quarterback), but that's been done. How about a reverse scouting report instead?
Let's take a look at what the Broncos will need to do to best Pittsburgh this week. Here are three ways Denver can attack the Steelers in hopes of pulling out a win.
Test the Offensive Line
In average yards per game allowed, the Denver Broncos defense ranked just 23rd last year and they were 26th in points allowed, but they still shined in areas that could present problems for the Steelers' offensive line on Sunday.
Denver averaged 2.6 quarterback sacks per game last year while at the same time, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 40 times. Though not every sack can be blamed on Pittsburgh's near-constant offensive-line problems, they certainly contributed to that total a great deal.
The Steelers were hoping to field a much-improved line this year, addressing the issue in the draft by snagging guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams in the first two rounds. But now, DeCastro is out for at least half of the season with a torn MCL and Adams is the backup to Max Starks—the more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.
So with an offensive line looking quite similar to the one the Steelers fielded last year, and a strong Denver front adept at rushing the passer, the Broncos therefore must focus on getting their hands on Roethlisberger early and often.
It's not the easiest task—we all know how mobile, elusive and tough to bring down Roethlisberger is—but we've seen it done, and with great frequency. Sure, the Steelers are trying to run the ball with greater effectiveness, but the Steelers are a passing offense, considering their receiving weapons.
The meat of their yards comes directly from the passing game. Shutting down Roethlisberger means Pittsburgh won't be able to find themselves in the red zone very often.
Test the Secondary While You're at It
You know who Peyton Manning is not? Tim Tebow. So, at least the Steelers' defense will be well-prepared for some serious passing. But preparation isn't the same as execution, and Week 1 is as good a time as any for Manning and company to bring the house against Pittsburgh's secondary.
There will be no Ryan Clark in Denver, because he suffers from sickle cell; Ryan Mundy will be starting in his stead at free safety. Cornerback William Gay is gone, now a member of the Arizona Cardinals; Keenan Lewis now has his spot, and Cortez Allen will be the nickel corner. Ike Taylor is still there, but at 32 years old, his skills are in decline.
We know little about Manning's health, but we've heard countless reports (and have seen for ourselves, in the preseason) that his arm—and his football acumen—are clearly no worse for wear. And clearly, whenever he's under center, there's going to be a lot of passing.
Will this Steelers secondary be able to cover Denver's receivers and prevent deep completions and yards after the catch? You know the Broncos hope the answer to these questions is a resounding no. Yes, the Steelers had the best passing defense in the NFL last season, but things are very different on that side of the ball heading into this season, and Manning and Denver's receiving corps will prove to be a big challenge.
Confound with the Run
Call it the "Opposite Tebow," if you will: The Steelers are preparing for passing out of Manning, so hit them with the run. That's not to say Pittsburgh won't be ready for the Broncos to run the ball. Denver averaged the most rushing attempts per game of any team in 2011, resulting in (you guessed it) the most average rush yards per game.
Again, as mentioned above, that was with a different quarterback. The Broncos, mainly relying on Tebow as their passer, had the fewest pass attempts of any team last year, but with Manning under center, that's certainly not going to be the case this season. The Steelers will thus be looking for more passing, so a good way to get over on their defense is to surprise them with the run.
While starting Broncos running back Willis McGahee is 30 years old, he did run for 1,199 yards last season and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Knowshon Moreno looks sharp after returning from last year's ACL tear, and they also have Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball available for carries as well.
This is a less one-dimensional Denver offense than the one we often saw last season, which makes them a greater threat to Pittsburgh's defense.