NFL Playoff Predictions: Banged Up Pittsburgh Steelers Could Struggle in Denver

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJanuary 6, 2012

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers calls a play against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

If there is one thing that may keep the home underdog Denver Broncos in their Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend, it may be the Steelers' injury list supplied by head coach Mike Tomlin.

Key players on the offensive side of the football will either be limited or out against the Broncos. 

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still dealing with a high ankle sprain sustained on Dec. 8 against the Clelveland Browns, and Maurkice Pouncey, Roethlisberger's center, may not play with ankle injury. Running back Rashard Mendenhall, who ran for 928 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, has already been ruled out with a torn ACL 

Could these injuries at key positions give the Broncos a chance to pull off the upset at home? Denver is currently an 8.5-point underdog despite being the No. 4 seed and hosting the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. 

Roethlisberger's lingering ankle is certainly the most worrisome. 

He's on record this week saying that the ankle is as bad right now as it was during the week following the Browns' game. Who knows what that means for the health of his ankle. But in his first game after the injury against the San Francisco 49ers, Roethlisberger was a sitting duck in the pocket and threw three back-breaking interceptions in a 20-3 road loss.

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Could he again be in trouble this week?

Roethlisberger was already the third-most sacked quarterback in the NFL this season (40), and the Broncos can bring the heat off the edge with Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks) and rookie Von Miller (11.5). If those two pass rushers are consistently on the back of Roethlisberger, it could be a long day for the Steelers offense. The ankle injury has really limited his ability to improvise and break the tackles of potential sackers like we've seen from him so many times in the past.

Losing Pouncey doesn't help, either. He's a top-five center in the league and a big reason why the Steelers can run the football between the tackles. Not having both Pouncey and Mendenhall might mean the Steelers are forced to throw it more with their hobbled quarterback than they'd like to.

So, while I think the Steelers still win this game somewhat handily, the cards are in play for Pittsburgh's offense to really struggle. 17 points might be enough to win with Tim Tebow facing the Steelers defense, but don't be surprised if the Steelers don't get much more than that this weekend.