Crushed Optimists

We are twin brothers who grew up in Central Washington. This blog is devoted to the life of Seattle sports fans, as well as various other topics that we will espouse for your enjoyment. We could be called another OFFICIAL SEATTLE SEAHAWKS site, but we'll take our uneducated crack at the Mariners, Sonics, and Huskies as well. A Seattle Sports Blog? Must be the land... of crushed optimism!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

AFC Championship Game Preview: Steelers at Broncos

We're down to the last two games. Does this mean we're going to have an extra-special preview? Probably not. Our previews are generally a) tacky and b) uninformed. The below will try not to stray from what makes us so special.

I'm more than a little upset that I'm missing this game. It's not too often that your two favorite teams are both playing on championship Sunday. Luckily, I'm missing it for a good cause (yet another reference to my being at the game, in a glorious attempt to drive Colin insane). It should be a terrific matchup between two great teams. I've already said who I will predict below, but let's get through all the cute preview stuff before that, shall we?

Pittsburgh Offense vs Denver Defense

Can Big Ben continue to step up?
Let's face it, Ben Roethlisberger won the game for the Steelers in Indianapolis. He faced a loud crowd in a dome against the best scoring team in the league and led the Steelers down the field for a touchdown on their first two possessions. That's nuts. In fact, the reason that Pittsburgh almost blew the win has as much to do with going away from Ben's arm as it did Bettis' fumble. He will be facing a Denver pass defense that vacillates between great and weak. To elaborate, anytime Champ Bailey is around the football Denver is great. Anytime he is not around the football Denver is weak. John Lynch has lost a step and while he is a great blitzer and in run support he is weak over the top. However, he is intelligent enough not to be fooled by the trick plays the Steelers love to run. The Broncos also have a quick linebacking corps who will not let Heath Miller get as wide open. All that to say that Roethlisberger has a much tougher job this time out. He will need to be the man, because they will not run the football.

Can Pittsburgh run the football?
Why do I think they will have trouble? Basically because Denver has terrific linebackers who are too fast for Willie Parker to get outside on them. I don't know why the Steelers don't bring out Bettis early to wear down opposing lines, but they may want to consider it this time around. The thin air at Mile High will affect the offensive line more later in the game, so having Bettis beat up the defense early and often might be their best shot. Again, John Lynch is a key here. It is like having an extra linebacker in the box on every play.

Can Pittsburgh recognize the blitz?
I'm going to reuse most of these questions below because they are applicable to both teams. Against the Patriots, the Broncos unleashed a devastating series of all-out blitzes that really rattled Tom Brady. The Patriots started to have success when they recognized the blitz and dropped off short passes into the wide open zone. If the line gives Ben the split second he needs, he and Hines Ward can pick Denver apart. Personally, I see Denver dropping back into coverage more anyways, as Roethlisberger shouldn't scare them in the same way Brady did.

Who's the x-factor?
For the Steelers it has to be Hines Ward. He is one of the top five receivers in the league and hasn't had a huge playoff performance yet. For the Steelers to reclaim their AFC throne, he needs to shine. For the Broncos I'm going with Ian Gold. He's a Pro Bowl linebacker who can take Heath Miller away from Big Ben. If he's successful at this, the Steelers could be in trouble, as Miller continues to become a greater part of the offensive attack.

Pittsburgh Defense vs Denver Offense

Will the real Denver offense please stand up?
The ugly little secret from the Denver win last Saturday is that their offense played an utterly abysmal game. Without a gift touchdown from that "pass interference" call and another possible one from the Champ Bailey return there's no way they win. The Broncos were unable to run the ball and Jake Plummer, while not making terrible decisions (the one pick was a terrific play by Asante Samuel) wasn't willing to take any risks at all. The Broncos just sat back and let the Patriots beat themselves. They won't get any such favors this week against the Steelers. Jake Plummer has a lot of great options in Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie and Jeb Putzier. There are favorable matchups in the Pittsburgh secondary, as Polamalu is always next to the line of scrimmage. Lelie and Smith should be open deep a few times on Sunday, Jake just needs to hit them.

Can Denver run the football?
They sure couldn't against the Patriots and I'm not sure why they can against the Steelers. Troy Polamalu has been an absolute fiend during these playoffs. He's brought a level of intensity to the Pittsburgh defense that hasn't been matched on opposing sidelines. He is everywhere on running plays. Denver's cut block scheme should work well against a 3-4 front, especially for a speedier back like Tatum Bell who can hit a hole quickly. I just wasn't all that impressed last week.

Can Denver recognize the blitz?
You would have thought Peyton Manning had never seen a blitz before the way he let Joey Porter fly at him for much of that game. Denver's offensive line normally does a good job at picking those linebacker blitzes up, but the Polamalu/Porter combos can be extremely effective. If the blitz gets to Plummer, interceptions will follow. I'm going to give Jake the benefit of the doubt and say he does a decent job recognizing these and not forcing balls.

Who's the x-factor?
For Pittsburgh, I'm going with big Casey Hampton in the middle. If he can hold serve on his blockers to let their linebackers find Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, the Steelers will win this game. For Denver, it's Mike Anderson. He did nothing last week and the Broncos need his physical, punishing running style to wear Pittsburgh down in the high altitude.

The Crushed Line
I said it last week, I'm not backing down now. I'm going with the Steelers. As with any championship game, it could easily go either way, but the Steelers are playing with such confidence on both sides of the ball that it's difficult to pick against them.

Colin: The Steelers are playing phenomenal ball right now, no question about it. However, I hesitate to pick any team to win three playoff games in a row on the road. That is extremely hard to do, and Denver is a tough, tough place to play. I'm going with Denver, and may God have mercy on my soul.

posted by Gavin @ 8:59 PM  3 comments


At 4:31 PM, Blogger Tash said...

Go Pittsburgh!!!

At 8:11 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

Steelers and the Panthers may win 3 in a row on the road...


At 9:49 AM, Blogger Gavin said...

No upset Denver fans yet? Just give it time...


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