The Pittsburgh Steelers will have to approach this game in Denver slightly differently than their last trip to Mile High Stadium. By slightly, I mean change the entire plan.
In the wild card game this January, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed Willis McGahee 61 yards on 19 carries and quarterback Tim Tebow added 50 yards on 10 carries. For the most part the Denver offense was one dimensional. Pittsburgh was able to pin their ears back to stop the run, a luxury they won’t have this time.
Peyton Manning will make his NFL return against a familiar foe. Manning has played the Steelers four times in his career, splitting games for a 2-2 record. The Steelers defense has one of the best statistical records against Manning, allowing just under a 60 percent completion rate.
Expect Manning to attack corner Keenan Lewis in his first start. Ryan Clark’s absence will also be felt to help Lewis in a big game.
Also, with the banged up linebacking corps expect Manning to look for mismatches out of the backfield. Lawrence Timmons will have to be a factor in this game for the Steelers to be on the right side of the score.
It is still unknown whether or not James Harrison will see any action and we won’t know until the start of the game. Sitting Harrison would be the most popular guess as he still had some swelling on Friday.
Offensively the goal will be simple: possess the ball. As all coaches want to do in this simple game, just don’t turn the ball over. Play smart and give your team a chance. Run the ball efficiently on first down.
All those old adages are not as easy as they sound of course. A new offense is in place and some key players are questionable.
Don’t worry, Mike Wallace will get the start according to Emmanuel Sanders. The offense is new and he did miss camp, but you plan each game for each team. Therefore, Wallace will be on the same Denver page as the rest of the team.
Expect Wallace to be more involved in this game than he was in the playoff game where he had just three receptions for 26 yards. Champ Bailey is only getting older and hopefully slower. Tracy Porter may be the Broncos’ bigger threat at corner.
The running game was effective in the playoff game as Isaac Redman had 121 yards on 17 carries. The backfield will be run by committee at least for this first week. The fresh legs should only help the run game.
Rashard Mendenhall has been practicing in full pads and is questionable for this weekend. Many assume coach Mike Tomlin will limit his snaps if he does play.
In the special teams game we have seen a glimmer of how bright Chris Rainey can be, but he has to earn Tomlin’s trust. Expect any punt returns to be taken deep within the Steelers end of the field to be returned by Brown or Sanders.
Everyone hates to put pressure on Week 1 games, but there are playoff implications on the line already. Every game is important in the NFL and Pittsburgh fans are still hungry from last year’s early playoff exit in Denver.