Thursday, November 02, 2006

Denver v. Steelers: Individual Matchups

With the inconsistent performances turned in by the Steelers during their three game skid it seems somewhat foolish to worry about what their opponent might do, or be capable of. In previous postings it has been pointed out that playing fundamental football (i.e. blocking and tackling well, and not turnover the football) is much more important to the final outcome of games than the matchup between a single wide-receiver and a single defensive back. But focusing obsessively about the minutiae helps take one's mind of the horrible won-loss record of our favorite team.

The Steelers' Offensive Line v. Denver's Front Seven
Much was made last season of Denver's transplanted defensive front -- i.e. Kenard Lang, Michael Myers, Gerard Warren, and Ebenezer Ekuban who arrived in Denver after having played in Cleveland -- and the strong season they had last season. But what has enhanced the play of the Broncos' front seven has been the continued development of their linebackers.

Al Wilson and D.J. Wilson have been strong performers throughout their careers, but with Denver's reacquisition of Ian Gold that has pushed this unit to the proverbial "next level." Indeed Brian Billick said that this linebacking corps "is as good as it gets in the NFL."

On the other side of the line is a Steelers offensive line that has struggled mightily to protect their quarterback in passing situations and have been unable to open holes enough to generate a consistently effective running attack. With Jeff Hartings described as "week-to-week" by his head coach, but whose actual status is much more tenuous then that, and Chukky Okobi expected to start the pressure on the offensive line can be expected to grow more intense.

Nate Washington/Santonio Holmes v. Nick Ferguson/John Lynch
Throwing on the early downs is especially important in this game (i.e. to keep Mr. Roethlisberger and his offenive line out of blitzing situations as much as possible), and the Steelers' third and fourth receivers are going to be critical in this game -- even more so than has been the case up to this point in the season. Champ Bailey is likely to be covering Hines Ward -- a matchup that is a push, especially considering Mr. Ward's questionable hamstring -- and Darrent Williams will be responsible for the inconsistent Cedric Wilson. If the Broncos make the mistake of giving either of their safties single-coverage responsibility then either one of the Steelers' young wideouts could exploit the situation.

Ken Whisenhunt v. Larry Coyer
The Steelers' offensive coordinator may never do a better job in game planning than he did for last season's AFC Championship.

And don't think that the Denver defensive coordinator doesn't remember every torturous moment of that game. In fact, though teams publicly deny such situations are motivation for games, the Broncos were so thoroughly dismantled in front of their home fans that it seems unlikely that they aren't working even harder than usual to kick the defending Super Bowl champions while they're down.

Ben Roethlisberger v. Jake Plummer
There is no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger is the more talented of these two NFL quarterbacks, but at this point in the 2006 season neither has been especially effective. Jake Plummer has completed 53.2% of his passes, has 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and a 65.2 quarterback rating. On the other hand Ben Roethlisberger's numbers are equally ugly (62.2% completion percentage, 6 TDs, 11 INTs, and a 70.7 QB rating). Between these two quarterbacks expecting either of them to "make plays" may be too much. Instead the quarterback with the fewest mistakes is likely to have the greater impact.

Special Teams
Both teams have dreadful special teams, but former Steelers wideout Quincy Morgan is returning kicks for Denver now, and don't think for a moment that he wouldn't kill to take at least one kick back for a touchdown this Sunday.

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