Playoff preview: Steelers-Broncos
Defenses have adjusted to Tim Tebow's game, causing him to struggle lately
The Steelers are injured, playing without Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Clark
The Broncos' D is good, but Pittsburgh is built to stop their offense's strengths
1. Tim Tebow picked the wrong time to slump.
Suddenly, he can't run. He's missing his throws by miles. The magic that made him the story of the season has evaporated. And now the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town, as unsentimental a team as it gets.
Tebow could not have chosen a tougher defense for his maiden playoff game. At their best the Steelers linebackers fly, their defensive backs pound and their linemen suffocate. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has surely taken note of the last few weeks, as defenses have crowded Tebow's receivers at the line, forcing him to make near-perfect throws. They have spied Tebow with linebackers, keeping him from breaking runs down the sideline. And when given a chance, they have hammered him, trying to wear him down hit by hit. In other words, they have been doing everything the Steelers have done for decades.
In the midst of Denver's six-game winning streak, Tebow made a bushel full of fourth-quarter big plays (with an assist to kicker Matt Prater) to become the story of the season. But after three straight defeats, the script has changed. Somehow the story of the season must overcome the bully of the league. Godspeed, Tim Tebow.
2. The Steelers are hurting almost anywhere you look.
Ben Roethlisberger is hobbled. Rashard Mendenhall is done for the season. Ryan Clark will wisely sit out because of the sickle cell trait he carries in his blood, a condition that could become life-threatening in high altitude. The Steelers, of course, have a Master's degree in overcoming adversity, from injuries to off-field strife, but this postseason run could be especially tough on a proud but aging team.
As a No. 5 seed, the Steelers will likely face three road games in three weeks just to get to the Super Bowl (the same road the Packers took last season) and it will test their depth and vigor. In three of their last four games, the Steelers have scored 14 points against Cleveland, three against San Francisco and 13 against Cleveland (the exception being a 27-0 thumping of the fading St. Louis Rams, a game Roethlisberger missed with his high ankle sprain).
Roethlisberger has not looked comfortable placing his weight on his left foot when he throws and he was spotted in the Steelers locker room Wednesday limping badly. As tough as he is, Roethlisberger is playing through an injury that normally requires a month or more of healing. Roethlisberger is among the best at it, but that doesn't mean it will be easy.
3. Antonio Brown, a former sixth-round pick, is becoming a consistent game-breaker.
In this golden era of return specialists, Brown excels both on offense and special teams, staking his team to great field position in various ways. Brown this season became the first player in NFL history with at least 1,000 receiving yards (1,108) and 1,000 return yards (1,062) in the same year. His franchise record for all-purpose yards (2,111) broke the mark set by running back Barry Foster (2,034) in 1992.
As a rookie last season, Brown made several big plays in the postseason, including a 58-yard catch on the Steelers' final drive of their AFC divisional playoff game against Baltimore. In the AFC Championship Game, he caught a 14-yard pass on third-and-six against the Jets to help ice that game. With the Pittsburgh running game hobbled, Brown's speed and clutch play should be a valuable asset for the Pittsburgh offense.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don't throw the football as much as teams like Detroit, New Orleans, New England and Green Bay, but they do throw it a lot. The Steelers ranked 10th in passing yards (compared to 14th in rushing yards) and had great production from various receivers.
|The Steelers' balanced pass attack|
Even with Roethlisberger ailing, the Steelers have the veteran savvy to win a road playoff game against a young and largely untested team. That's not to say Denver's defense should be overlooked. It's for real. But the Steelers are built to stop what the Broncos do well. Expect a low-scoring game and a Steelers win.
Steelers 19, Broncos 6