The Pittsburgh Steelers open the 2012 NFL season against the Denver Broncos, returning to the scene of the crime. There probably isn’t a single NFL fan who has forgotten how Tim Tebow, the Broncos QB last season, burned the Steelers #1 ranked defense in the first play of overtime with a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. On the eve of the game, here’s what I’m thinking (in no particular order):
1. WR Mike Wallace boarded the plane for Denver without achieving his goal of a contract extension. After holding out throughout the preseason (for the purpose of avoiding injury in preseason games, as he knew the Steelers front office won’t negotiate during a holdout), Wallace has been in hurry-up mode to pick up new OC Todd Haley’s offense. Now that he’s playing on a 1-year tender worth $2.74 and will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, he needs to have a big year…but he also can’t afford to get injured. He’s taking a big risk, and I hope it doesn’t affect his concentration. It’s already affected his interaction with the media.
2. It’s Peyton Manning’s official return to regulation NFL. He looks like the same old Peyton Manning with the exception of arm strength and control of long passes. Expect to see a lot of quick dumps and short passes, as he strives to avoid getting hit more than ever. I can’t help but wonder if the referees will show him some favoritism by way of allowing some Broncos offensive line holding in the interest of protecting him from a potentially devastating injury following his neck fusion. Even Manning admits that his health and fitness are not perfect. Bottom line, he’s still an incredibly dangerous opponent…and genius defensive coordination Dick LeBeau is 1-6 against him.
3. Eric Decker and Peyton Manning seem to have developed a good rapport. Demaryius Thomas is a step behind after recovering from having some pins removed from an injured finger prior to the start of preseason. Rumor has it that he and Peyton aren’t in sync quite yet.
4. As expected, safety Ryan Clark won’t start against the Broncos because of his sickle cell trait. He has been tested at altitude extensively in the years since his splenic infarction which required a splenectomy, and physicians have estimated that he has a minimal chance of suffering any complications at this point if he receives the proper hydration, oxygen, and monitoring. Despite the low risk, Coach Tomlin isn’t willing to take a chance…and it’s absolutely the right call.
5. The Steelers are thin at outside linebacker. LaMarr Woodley looks solid. Starter James Harrison is questionable as he recovers from a recent arthroscopic knee surgery. Jason Worilds missed all of preseason recovering from wrist surgery for a ligament injury and just recently returned to practice. This year’s third round draft pick, Sean Spence, was looking good in preseason until he suffered a horrific knee injury in the 4th exhibition game and landed on IR. In place of Harrison and Worilds, 2nd year player Chris Carter will likely get the start. Carter’s pass rush skills have been developing nicely. It’s his assistance in the run defense, where he is less accomplished, that will be key.
6. The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker. Lawrence Timmons is healthy. Larry Foote has a mild ankle injury but is expected to start. Stevenson Sylvestor is out as he recovers from an MCL injury sustained in the preseason. Initial estimates have him returning 4 weeks later, but no recent update is available. Next up is Brandon Johnson, new to the Steelers but veteran in his 6th NFL season.
7. The game could hinge on the replacement referees. Logic would dictate that the league will assign the least inadequate replacements to the high-profile games, so this game should be officiated by the best of the bad. Then again, ask NY Giants Victor Cruz (who was the victim of a huge blown pass interference call during the season opener) how that worked out.
8. Establishing the running game will be the key for both teams. Although Manning is considered a passing QB, he needs an effective run game to establish play action. The same is true for Ben Roethlisberger. The match-up in the trenches between offensive and defensive lines will likely be the determining factor in this game.
9. Ike Taylor is still mad. No matter how many times the Steelers shut-down cornerback claims the disastrous wildcard game is in the past, it still haunts him. He engaged in a recent twitter war with Stephen A. Smith about it, showing how raw the wound still is. It’s unfair that he was blamed for the loss. Taylor had a phenomenal season, and the Steelers secondary was weakened without Ryan Clark. More importantly, it was LeBeau who guessed wrong on that first play of OT and put 9 in the box, leaving the secondary exposed. It was a reasonable guess, though…Every other 1st down that night had been a run play.
10. We don’t know who the starting running back will be for the Steelers. Last year’s starter Rashard Mendenhall has had a remarkable recovery from his ACL repair. Originally expected to start the season on the PUP list and automatically miss the first 6 weeks, Mendenhall may be active for this game. ACL repairs take time to heal, though, so don’t expect to see him on the field. Isaac Redman, who performed well in Denver last January despite a shaky offensive line that was further weakened when LT Max Starks suffered an ACL injury early in the game. has been hobbled by groin and ankle injuries but will reportedly play. Jonathan Dwyer, looking fit and ready in his third season, will likely see significant playing time as well. Baron Batch, recovered from an ACL injury and surgical repair during the 2011 preseason, may not take the field due to a groin injury sustained in the final preseason game. Rookie Chris Rainey has shown speed and talent in the preseason, but Coach Tomlin may not want to put too much pressure on him in a national primetime game…just ask Giants RB David Wilson.