Folks, this is the game I've been waiting for all season. There is an awful lot to look at between these two teams, and from a purely Xs and Os standpoint, this game should be a feast for football lovers.
The Steelers are the defending SB champions. Their young coach had to start under the shadow of a big name. This is a team that has excellent players in just about every facet of the game, and they are used very well by the coach.
The Broncos have emerged from a few years wandering the wilderness, and have a near perfect record. Their young coach had to start out in the shadow of a big name. Excellent players? Check. Great coaching? Check.
And this game will be on Monday night. Does it get any better?
Offensive Postion Analysis
I'm going to break this week down a little differently than what we're used to. Let's start with my comparison of the teams' units.
QB - PIT
Let's face it; Kyle Orton is for real. His 95.5 rating is due in big part to a lack of INTs. In 7 games, he has 1 INT thrown on a "hail Mary" pass to close out a half. Orton makes his living in Denver by throwing screens, hitches, and curls. He is willing to throw the ball away or to take a sack rather than throw an INT. This looks ugly to many fans, but it demonstrates a style of play that isn't what Denver fans are used to. Gone are the "gamble and scramble" days. Orton doesn't gamble; he picks his targets or throws off. Boring? Yes. Effective? It wins games.
But "Big Ben" is an established QB, with a lot of good football behind (and ahead) of him. He does it all. Ben Roethlisberger can throw and run, and has experience up to and including the Super Bowl. His rating is 102.6
Ben gets that rating by completing his passes. Where Orton is at a career best 63.6 completion percentage, Big Ben is at 70.4. Both QBs are good at what they do, and Orton has been terribly underrated. But I have to give Ben the advantage here.
WR - tie
Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward are two big names in the NFL football ranks. While the Steelers have always been a tough, smash mouth team, they are airing out the ball this year. Holmes and Ward have been a big part of the 5-2 start. Both players are not only key in the pass game, but can get physical and run block as well. These guys present a solid 1-2 punch.
Denver isn't lacking either. Brandon Marshall has estabalished himself as a real star this year. Changing his mind on being a hold out, and (it is to be hoped) having put the off field issues behind him, Marshall has proven that he is a physical receiver who can run you over. Against the Cowboys though, he proved he can zig and zag through a defense too. Opposite Marshall is Eddie Royal, who garnered 2 returns for TDs in a game. A legit #1 receiver, Royal has speed and cuts that make him a deadly threat if he catches the ball in full stride. Denver's hidden strength is depth at WR, with route specialist Jabar Gaffney and smart / physical Brandon Stokley equaly deadly at the slot position.
TE - DEN
This is a tougher call than many Denver fans might think. Obviously, Daniel Graham is a monster blocker with good hands, and Tony Scheffler is a receiver in a TEs tough body. And yes, Richard Quinn is a tough blocking rookie. Yes, I'll take Denver. But don't be fooled, because Pittsburgh is loaded too.
Heath Miller is an excellent TE, as is Matt Spaeth. David Johnson can be brought in for a 3-TE look, and (in fact) I would call PITT one of three teams capable of playing 3 TE sets on a consistent basis this year if they wanted to. (DEN and NE are the other two, based on history with the formation and other factors).
I give Denver a slight edge here.
RB - DEN
You have to love Correll Buckhalter. Anyone who averages 6 yards per carry this far into the season is a keeper. His 18 receptions aren't shabby either. Rookie Knowshon Moreno has been getting his feet wet, and owns a 3.9 average.
Rashard Mendenhall is a power running back who has better speed and elusiveness than most power runners. His 5.4 average is very, very good. PIT could run the ball a lot more with this kid if they wanted to. The only criticism I've heard is that he can fumble the ball. He has two fumbles (both for losses) this year, but that's better than Moreno (3 fumbles - all lost) and tied with Buckhalter (also two fumbles, but lost one).
OL - DEN
The most notable issue for Denver is the loss of RT Ryan Harris. One of the best RTs in the League, he'll be missed this week. While I think Tyler Polumbus can hold his own against most teams, I respect the Steeler's defense, and TE Daniel Graham will likely need to be limited to Pass blocking duty to offset the loss.
Denver's other strength is LT Ryan Clady, who is arguably one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL today, and still young. And while Ben Hamilton and Chris Kuper are both very good at what they do, Center Casey Wiegmann is the real anchor in the middle of the OL.
Denver's only weakness on the OL is the lack of power for short yardage. Denver seems to be asking the athletic and agile lineman to assist with power runs up the gut, something they aren't built for. As the season has worn on, Denver has gotten further from their zone blocking tradition. For what it is worth (and in the eyes of Denver's coaching staff, it isn't going to be worth anything), I think Denver needs to get back to the ZB. If Denver wants to transition into a typical run blocking scheme, then they should at least play to the current strength of the OL players. The ZB is always run as a short yardage play, with the very real possibilty that it will break open. Right now, we don't have the bodies to support dives and slams.
On the other hand, if PIT has a weakness, I think it is the OL. Big Ben has been sacked 20 times this year, and faces a terrific pass rush from Denver. I think the OL is improving, but they have a ways to go.
Denver's rankings - stats and (rank) Pittsburgh's rankings - stats and (rank)
Avg pt.s per game - 20 (20th) 23.9 (14th)
Yards avg per game - 344.6 (14th) 383 (6th)
Pass avg per game - 221.4 (16th) 276 (5th)
Rush avg per game - 123.1 (11th) 107 (19th)
Folks, we need to wake up and smell the coffee. We are not in the top ten in any single offensive category I've listed. There is no room for Orton bashing. It is clear that Orton is doing his job, and doing it well. A QB rating in the 90s means a good QB, and we've seen what our receivers can do. We are also over 100 yards per game rushing, which is the classic standard. But we have some things to address, and we need to move fast.
First, we need to fix our short yardage issues in the running game. Next, we need to start getting TDs. A 6-1 record is a good thing, and each of our players are doing a good job. But if we are going to make the playoffs, we will need to be able to put up more points.
I wrote in last weeks article that Denver is NOT a shoot out team. We have come back from poor 1st halfs all year, but we can't rack up points if the opposing team decides to make the game high tempo. It was a major key for Baltimore last week, and they executed. Like NE, Denver likes to accumulate small advantages and chip away at the other team, winning close if neccassary. But Denver needs to be more like NE in another respect; Denver needs to be able to run up scores when needed.
At this point in the season, Denver has a cushion to find out what the problems are (6-1). But we'll need to see some adjustments quickly. Coach McDaniels has proven that he can make adjustments during half time. Now we need to see if he can make adjustments over the course of a season, which is a completely different skill set for a coach.
PITT has the better QB, and the better passing game. PITT's only concern is the OL, but that is a big concern. I think PITT's running game could be better if they committed to the run, but they haven't needed to. If we were comparing offenses, I would give the advatage to PITT. They beat us in everything except running the ball. But folks, we don't compare the same units (off vs off). We compare offenses to defenses. Before we do that, let's look at the defenses so that we'll know what to compare.
Defensive Position Analysis
We have two great defenses lining up this week, and this is a real treat for fans of defense. I love the Iron Curtain almost as much as I love the Orange Crush. This year, both units are in elite form.
DL - PITT
Just how good is the PITT DL? Consider this. Aaron Smith goes down for the season. Losing a starting DE is a rough thing to deal with. Then his back-up goes down for this week (Travis Kirschke). Does PITT panic? Not at all. Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason step into the gap without missing a beat. Like Denver, PITT is ok with rotations on the line, and they have depth.
Denver (on the other hand) may not see Ryan McBean at LDE this week (LDG if you consider the DEnver defense to be a true 5-2). This is a bigger problem for Denver. Denver rotates the line too, but I wouldn't yet put the defensive line in PITT's league. I'm not saying that the Denver DL isn't good by any stretch. I'm just saying that we are great, but PITT is excellent.
OLBs - DEN
I don't care if we call them DEs or OLBs, but Denver is stacked at the position and can rotate all day long.
One guy to keep in place is Elvis Dumervil. With 10 sacks for the season, you can bet that PITT is scheming to stop him. Playing at RDE (ROLB), Doom is a sack master who uses his low center of gravity and long wingspan to out-judo his opponents in the bull rush, and uses speed and agility to get around blockers when rushed wide.
Denver can sprinkle in Mario Haggan, Darrell Reid, and Robert Ayers to stay fresh. (Watch for PITT to counter with the no-huddle. More on this later).
At ILB, Denver has Andra Davis, who has been rejuventated playing in Denver. Davis uses strength and leverage to get his way. To his right, D.J. Williams continues to be the anchor for the LBs. His skill set is based more on speed and agility, but he is as tough as nails and not a light LB. Even back-ups Spencer Larsen and Wesley Woodyard are dangerous when put on the field.
PITT also has an excellent LB corps. There is some concern about whether Lawrence Timmons (RILB) will be able to play on Monday. I expect him to show up, and to play 100%. Like talking about the DL, I may sound like I'm putting down a unit because I pick the other. Not so. Both teams have great DLs, and I gave the edge to PITT. Both teams have great LBs, but I'll give the edge to Denver.
CBs - DEN
Some folks will find fault with the PITT CBs. Not me. Ike Taylor is a good CB, and so is William Gay. Both are fundementaly sound, underrated, and a terrific tandem. (Watch Ike for blitzes. He is one of the best blitzing CBs in the League. If he doesn't get to the QB, he still typicaly causes hurry ups. He may be moved between left and right CB as well).
However, they are nothing near Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman. Bailey is going to the Hall of Fame some day, and Goodman is playing better ball in Denver than in Miami. In fact, he's doing it even though he's going to get a lot of throws his way when QBs avoid Bailey.
And while Jack Williams is ill, Denver does fine with rookie Alphonso Smith playing at nickle.
SAF - DEN
Both teams have excellent safeties. Denver has the player that revolutionized the safety position - Weapon X - Brian Dawkins. Older? Yes. Depleted? Not yet. Dawkins is tearing up the field for Denver by being in on most plays and keeping the defense fired up. He is the leadership this defense has been missing. Next to him, Renaldo Hill (like CB Goodman) has come to Denver and is playing better football. Together, these two safeties have been amazing. Their back-ups would be worth writing about, but many are injured (Josh Barett and David Bruton). Rookie Darcel McBath has the potential if he is needed.
But PITT has Troy Polamalu at Safety, and he's a beast. Don't let the shampoo comercials and the soft voice fool you. Troy is one of those safeties that can do it all - hit, tackle, intercept, disrupt, and cover. He is arguably one of the top five (if not number one) safeties in the League, along with Dawkins and Reed. He's coming off of an injury, but expected to play.
The big news this week is Ryan Clark at free safety. Because of a rare blood disorder, Clark should not be playing in Denver's altitude. My heart goes out to the guy, as there is talk he may not even be allowed to make the trip.
STs - DEN
You didn't think I'd give STs their own section did you? Of course not.
Ok, there may be reason to worry about Prater. Read more from MHR member OrangeandBlue27 here. And we just switched out punters, didn't we? But PITT has the kick and punt coverage that Denver must have had last year. PITT has given up 3 TD on STs in the last 3 weeks. Royal has been know to get two TDs on returns in one game.
Denver's rankings - stats and (rank) Pittsburgh's rankings - stats and (rank)
Avg pt.s per game - 13.7 (2nd) 18.4 (7th)
Yards avg per game - 266.7 (1st) 291 (8th)
Pass avg per game - 180.6 (8th) 214.4 (16th)
Rush avg per game - 86.1 (3rd) 76.6 (1st)
I'm hearing a lot about the almighty Steelers defense this week. Let's give credit where credit is due. Pittsburgh has a great defense. But Denver beats Pittsburgh in every category but one, where Denver still manages a third best in the League ranking. Another stat to throw in - Denver allows 1/3 of opposing 3rd down conversions (33.3%), while PITT is allowing 43.3%.
In sum, both teams should stop the run this game. That much is clear. But how do the units match against there opposite numbers? What about the systems, the plays, and the head to head match ups?
Denver is 6-1. SIX AND ONE! They are at home on a Monday night, and except for one key injury, are all on the field. Pittsburgh is 5-2, including a close loss to CIN (a team Denver beat) and CHI. Both loses were close, so PITT is pretty darned close to being unbeaten themselves. I'll grant that. But 6 and 1 is nothing to sneeze at. Unless you are a sports writer (more on that in a moment). PITT may be missing some players, and others are coming off of injuries. Still, PITT had a bye week to rest and prepare.
I love the media. I really do (not). Some of my favorite things I've read this week include a ridiculous story about how accurate those Vegas guys are, knowing to pick against an undefeated Denver team and to go with Baltimore. Nice. Don't bother mentioning that Denver is 6-1, despite Vegas being wrong in six of those games (Denver was only favored one time). Another article (I won't mention John Clayton by name) buys into the mantra that Orton has a weak arm. Yet another claims that the Ravens and the Steelers have similar defenses. They're both physical, and both play a lot of 3-4, but the Ravens have been playing the 2 gap Fairbanks-Bullough system, while the Steelers have been playing the Lebeau Zone Blitz.
The minute Denver loses "one" game, the doubters came out (as predicted by many at MHR). All of a sudden, we are a team preparing to enter a death spiral. All of a sudden, we're not as good as we thought we were.
Not enough for you? Denver has beaten the 5th, 6th, and 7th best teams in the NFL (CIN, DAL, and NE). One game is not the end of this team. In fact, a loss at this point in the season (while not prefered) gives the team better film to study. There isn't as much to find on film from a win, but a loss provides much room for analysis and growth for a good team. Rather the loss now than in the playoffs.
Let's not sell PITT short. As I mentioned earlier, their only two losses were close ones, and this team has star power.
But certainly don't sell Denver short. Denver has a 6-1 record against teams with an average winning percentage of .510 (opposing teams combined for 26-25 record). That beats PITT's opponents, who have a losing average. Those opponents are at .451 (a combined 23-28). More amazing is to factor in that Denver's opponents have a better record than PITT's, despite the fact that each of Denver's opponents had to play "Denver", who gave 6/7ths of those teams a loss (compared to PITT, who handed out losses to 5/7ths).
In other words, we have two very, very good teams on the field. A lot of folks are nervous because Denver has lost one game. But over the course of this season, Denver has played better ball and has a better record and stats to show for it.
Let's revisit the comparisons between rankings, but look at offensive vs defensive match-ups.
Denver Offense PITT Defense
Avg pt.s per game - 20 (20th) 18.4 (7th)
Yards avg per game - 344.6 (14th) 291 (8th)
Pass avg per game - 221.4 (16th) 214.4 (16th)
Rush avg per game - 123.1 (11th) 76.6 (1st)
On offense, we see that PITT beats us relatively in every category but one (the pass game), where we rank even. Now let's look at how PITT does on offense.
PITT Offense Denver Defense
Avg pt.s per game - 23.9 (14th) 13.7 (2nd)
Yards avg per game - 383 (6th) 266.7 (1st)
Pass avg per game - 276 (5th) 180.6 (8th)
Rush avg per game - 107 (19th) 86.1 (3rd)
Here, we beat PITT in every category but one. Again, it is the pass game that is different. Here PITT beats us. So relative to how each team has played so far (as measured in rankings), DEN wins in 6 stats, PITT wins in 7, and the teams tie in another.
The margin in the difference in rankings over all favor PITT by 29 "ranking points" when we have the ball, and favor Denver by 20 When PITT has the ball. On the other hand, Denver's defense is 32 points better than PITT's defense, while PITT's Offense is only 17 pts better than Denver's.
The key is the actual points on the score board at the end of the game, and this is where efficieny comes in. Remember the stat I mentioned about third down conversions? It comes into play when we look at teams moving the ball down the field. Even though PITT averages about two more minutes in time of possession, Denver runs the ball better, even though both teams are near each other in terms of rushing defense. While PITT is likely to stop Denver on the ground, they'll have a harder time stopping the Denver running game relative to Denver stopping PITT's 19th ranked run game. The pass offenses and defenses are very close for both teams, and is a wash.
I see three approaches for the Steelers on offense this week.
- No huddle scheme
- Run heavy scheme
- Passing attack
Those are over-simplifications, but they'll make the points easier to understand.
First, the no huddle looks good on paper. Every one from Clayton to Big Ben are advocating it for this week. I see some problems with this approach. First, this game isn't in Baltimore, it is in the Mile High city. Assuming that Denver is conditioned to the altitude (metabolic levels, etc), does PITT really want to level the playing field between the defense and offense in terms of endurance? The way to beat a defense at altitude is to win time of possession by keeping the defense on the field. You do that with no-huddle, but the higher tempo leads to a change of possesion quicker (whether from a turnover, score, or inability to convert a down). Why not just keep the ball, and move down the field consistently? Besides, Denver has almost certainly devoted a lot of practice hours to adjusting for the no huddle in light of last week's game.
The second approach is to run the ball more. I this approach much more. PITT hasn't been winning games on the ground, they've done it in the air. Folks might argue that the low ranking in average run yards is because of a lack of commitment to the run, and this is true. But against the third best run defense in the League, why not give the ball to your star QB, or at least strike a balance?
The passing attack may be the way to go. The best players on the offense are arguably at QB and WR, and this has been working for PITT. The question is, can the OL protect Ben? Denver has a great sack scheme, and PITT'S OL isn't the best right now. Ben can take hits, and can throw on the run. He's a big, fast player in the mold of an Elway.
For Denver, they need to throw the ball. The run has been under utiized by PITT, but despite Denver's decent individual stats, Denver just isn't tearing teams apart with the run game. Together, the run and the pass have moved the ball down the field for Denver, but not created a lot of points in quick strikes. This will beat most teams, but won't win shoot outs. In fact, if Denver hope to beat INDY in Dec, they had better learn how to put up points on every long drive OR put up points quickly on most drives.
In a surprise twist, I wonder if McDaniels feels that Orton can handle a no huddle or two? This would be the game to bring it out. You can beat a physical defense at altitude with a good no huddle.
Denver needs to keep their TEs in to block this game. PITT's zone blitz is formidable, and two TEs are the standard counter to a 3-4. Graham (TE) in particular will be needed to assist the right side of the line in pass blocking with the Harris missing at RT. I don't expect many passes to TEs in this game. If Orton uses a safety valve, it will likely be a running back.
Expect bump and run from the Steeler CBs, but coverage to be over the top. Expect the safeties of PITT to play the pass more than the run in deep zone. LBs and DLs will take turns in zones and rushing the passer in the typical zone blitz manner. I expect the PITT defense to do a good job shutting down the run.
Expect the Denver defense to play off or on coverage, but not tight. The Denver CBs will play underneath in most match-ups. While one Denver ILB zones the middle, mans the RB, or blitzes, the other ILB will take one of the other two assignments. The OLBs (DEs) will rush or zone.
PITT will vary their offense, presenting 2 TE sets, I forms, and 3 receiver sets. I don't expect Denver to use a FB, so expect 2 TE or 3 WR sets.
Keys to the Game
- Denver lost last week when they let the Ravens get after Orton. Denver's OL must hold.
- Denver lost last week when they let the game turn into a shoot out. They probably can't run against the Ravens very well, but too many passes may lead to a shoot out. Denver needs to complete a lot of intermediate and short passes, get into a rhythm, and move the ball consistently and slowly (this will also tire the PITT defense).
- Ben is a terrific QB. But he makes mistakes. If the pass rush can reach Ben (and it should against the Steeler's OL), an elite secondary has the chance to make key INTs. Rush Ben, and don't drop those INTs.
- Win time of possesion. If you want to win in the altitude (something PITT hasn't done much of), you need to keep your defense off of the field. Try the no-huddle if you want to, but keep the oxygen handy for your guys on both sides of the ball.
- Challenge with the run game. If Mendenhall can match his terrific YPC average, run down the Broncos. At worst, it doesn't work and you still have a great passing game. But try the run out.
- Don't kick to Royal. You're better off kicking out of bounds on punts.
This game could go either way. For every stat that favors one team, another stat counters it. PITT is a more physical team, and a more balanced team. Denver has the better defense. Perhaps the Baltimore game has helped to prepare Denver for the Steelers.
This will be a great Monday Night Football encounter. I like Denver at home, with the better record against a tougher schedule in the first 8 weeks (7 games). For that reason, I don't understand PITT getting 3 points in Vegas. Still, PITT is no joke, and I'm not fully confident with picking Denver. The reason? While we have a SB caliber defense, our offense is "just" doing well. It needs to play much better than that if we are going to beat the many types of teams we'll be playing this year. We rank in the bottom half of the League in passing yards per game and points. The points stat really stands out.
Good teams lose ball games, but they lose close (as PITT has). Yes, we had one loss, but it wasn't close. An inability to dominate is the problem. Good teams "find a way to win". That's what we've been doing. Great teams dominate, and we have yet to do that.
This week, I'm confident that the Steelers come in with a good game plan and players ready to execute. I know the Denver players will be fired up (or Dawkins will be kicking butts in the locker room). What I'm looking forward to seeing is how McDaniels adjusts to a loss. I've already bought in to the McDaniels way, and I'm hoping that he's on top of this aspect of coaching too.
Denver wins (fingers crossed and nervous as Hell).