Steelers vs. Broncos: Keys to Victory for Each Team in Sunday Night Battle
The biggest storyline will be Peyton Manning's debut with his new team, but these are both teams that should be serious contenders by the time the season ends. Pittsburgh will look to avenge last season's playoff loss, but the 2012 Broncos should be even better than last year's version.
For either team to win the opening game, it must follow these keys to victory.
Protect Peyton Manning
The Steelers have had one of the toughest defenses in the league for over a decade, and they come at the quarterback from many different directions. They would want nothing more than to knock Manning out of the game and let Brock Osweiler beat them.
Denver needs to make sure the quarterback stays on his feet as much as possible, especially after he missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury. With a more experienced quarterback, the offensive line should cut down on the 42 sacks from last season, but it is still important to keep Manning safe.
If they need to keep extra men in for protection, it is worth the risk.
Spread the Ball Around
Denver has two very talented receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. They each bring different things to the table, but Manning has to make sure that each is targeted throughout the game.
Specifically, Thomas needs to get on the same page with the veteran quarterback after a disappointing preseason. He has the speed necessary to exploit a secondary that will be missing safety Ryan Clark.
Make Steelers One-Dimensional
The Broncos were No. 22 in the NFL last season against the run, but the Steelers will be piecing together a running back by committee led by Isaac Redman. Denver needs to shut down whoever is carrying the ball at the beginning and force Pittsburgh to the air.
Denver is better suited to defend the pass in this game. Ben Roethlisberger is still an elite quarterback, but he is easier to defend when you know it is coming and you can let your pass-rushers do what they do best.
Overcome Loss of Ryan Clark
The veteran safety has a sickle cell trait, which could affect his health if he plays in the high altitude of Denver. Therefore, head coach Mike Tomlin stood by his previous decisions to keep him out of the game.
Unfortunately, this is a big loss for the secondary. There is a big drop-off to Clark's replacement Ryan Mundy, the player who allowed the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the playoffs last season.
Mundy not only needs to step up his efforts, but the entire defense needs to compensate. Otherwise, Manning can have a big night.
Establish the Run
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley set this as his goal when he was hired, but now he needs to show it can be done. Although Rashard Mendenhall will likely not play, Isaac Redman was solid last season with 479 rushing yards.
The team needs to keep pounding the ball to Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to keep the opposing defense on the field and tired, and they will control the time of possession.
Avoid Mistakes on Special Teams
There are plenty of question marks on the special teams unit for the Steelers. They are using a rookie punter in Drew Butler and a rookie returner in Chris Rainey. Both men know what they are doing, but it is easy to get nervous in an NFL debut.
At kicker, Shaun Suisham remains after missing eight of his 31 attempts last season. The 30-year-old has been on three different teams in his career because he just cannot remain consistent.
Denver is a great place to kick long field goals, but it will be tough to trust the veteran in a key situation.
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