First and foremost, apologies for going old-school and waiting until less than 12 hours prior to the game to get a preview generated. It’s just like 20 years ago when you had to wait for the Sunday paper. This preview won’t take up too much of your time. Let’s face fact. There’s really only one storyline for this game…The Return of Peyton Manning.
I could go on about how we got here, what the Broncos organization has done since we last saw it play a competitive game, and what it all means for Peyton Manning as he comes back to football. Seeing though as how we’ve spent about the past five months doing that, let’s not revisit all the subplots and get down to what I’ll watch for Sunday night (and by extension, what I recommend you watch for as well).
When Denver has the ball:
The running game. Totally kidding…of course it’s the passing game. Every facet of it. Is the protection strong even with the Steelers vigorous need to get to the quarterback? What role do the tight ends have and is Demaryius Thomas picking up where he left off last season? A quick note about Thomas: his game winner last season has earned him the title of the “big play threat,” but he has yet to establish himself as a “downfield” threat. Can Thomas consistently stretch the field to open space up for slot receivers and tight ends?
While kidding about the running game getting the headline, it’s still going to be an important point of emphasis. According to common inference, a big part of Manning’s Denver decision was John Elway offered the, “I’ve been in your shoes, and know what’s needed to thrive late in your career” selling point. Translation: It’s really helpful to have a running game. A Manning-orchestrated, one-dimensional passing attack may win a few games, but ultimately the Broncos will need to convince the Steelers defense to remain honest. If the Broncos running game is relegated to handoffs picking up 2-yards and swing passes, it’ll be putting too much mileage on Manning.
When Denver doesn’t have the ball:
Is the defense trying to get the ball back? This doesn’t mean three and outs (although those are welcome), but can this defense be opportunistic, and create mistakes from opposing quarterbacks. The Broncos defense is truly built to be a quandary to quarterbacks, ideally creating enough chaos in the backfield to force immediate mistakes, or poor decisions that will allow a savvy secondary to capitalize.
Elvis Dumervil has all the trappings of a man about to have a thunderous year. Von Miller will continue to create serious problems for offensive lines. The big difference will be if the other bigs (Justin Bannan, Ty Warren, Mitch Unrein, and Derek Wolfe) will make the base of the pocket as dangerous as the outskirts. The Broncos secondary is improved, but will need assistance from the grinders up front.
It’s safe to assume heading into this game that Denver’s linebacking corps is the team’s weakest position. The starting trio is probably average at best from a coverage standpoint. However this group wasn’t assembled to monitor passing lanes. It needs to clog holes on the ground. It will be interesting to see if the Steelers (who like to run as it is) put a premium on the ground game from the start. Remember, Peyton Manning at his prime only needed the ball for 15 minutes once to score enough points to win. If the Steelers find it difficult getting to Manning the next step is to limit his effect with ball control.
If the Steelers come out throwing it will signal their bet is Manning no longer has the gusto to go score for score.
Manning Prediction: 267 yds., 2 TD, 1 INT
It’s a modest start as Peyton shakes off the rust against a tried and true defensive unit.
Game Prediction: Broncos 27, Steelers 24
Fortunately, the rest of the Broncos roster reminds a national audience that despite the coverage, just like last year, winning is a TEAM effort. The Broncos offense keeps the Steelers off pace with contributions from Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, and even a Ronnie Hillman sighting. The defense can’t shutdown Ben Roethlisberger, but once again gets enough stops to give the Broncos a chance.
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