The 2012 regular season is finally upon us and the Steelers are going to start the season in the same place where the 2011 season ended, Denver, Colorado. Last year it was a disappointing end to a really strange season and this year the Steelers are back and primed for another run at a division title and hopefully a Super Bowl run.
This primary focus of this game is obviously going to be the return to the playing field of Peyton Manning. Manning signed a monster deal to play with the Broncos and everyone is lapping up his first game since the 2010 season. Manning has played a lot of games against the Steelers and he knows the Steelers defense as well as the Steelers know how he runs the offense. The Broncos are going to be nothing like the team the Steelers played last season and it should be a circus like atmosphere in Denver.
The Steelers have their own new faces, although the biggest headliner isn't even going to be playing on the field. I am talking about new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley came to the Steelers after falling out of favor in Kansas City last season and he will bring some fresh ideas from an offense that seems to have plateaued under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Enough of this, lets start with the preview.
Now for the stats:
AFC Wild Card: Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)
Pit: Roethlisberger: 22/14, 289 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Den: Tebow: 10/21, 316 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Pit: Redman: 17 carries, 121 yards, 0 TD
Den: McGahee: 19 carries, 61 yards, 0 TD
Pit: Sanders: 6 rec, 81 yards, 0 TD
Den: Thomas: 4 rec, 204 yards, 1 TD
All-Time Record vs. Denver: 10-17-1 (3-4 Playoffs)
Jan. 8, 2012 - Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)
Nov. 9, 2009 - Pittsburgh 28, Denver 10
Oct. 21, 2007 - Denver 31, Pittsburgh 28
Nov 5, 2006 - Denver 31, Pittsburgh 20
Jan. 22, 2006 - Pittsburgh 34, Denver 17
Offense (rank in NFL)
Pittsburgh: 372.3 yards/game (12th)
Denver: 316.6 yards/game (23rd)
Pittsburgh: 253.4 yards/game (10th)
Denver: 152.1 yards/game (31st)
Pittsburgh: 118.9 yards/game (14th)
Denver: 164.5 yards/game (1st)
Pittsburgh: 20.3 points/game (t21st)
Denver: 19.3 points/game (25th)
Pittsburgh: 271.8 yards/game (1st)
Denver: 357.8 yards/game (20th)
Pittsburgh: 171.9 yards/game (1st)
Denver: 231.5 yards/game (18th)
Pittsburgh: 99.8 yards/game (8th)
Denver: 126.3 yards/game (22nd)
Pittsburgh: 14.2 points/game (1st)
Denver: 24.4 points/game (24th)
Hit the jump for the rest of the preview
Last season the QB for the Broncos was Tim Tebow and that turned out to be more of a fullback throwing the ball than it was someone that could stretch the field and put points on the board. I know you are going to point to the playoff game against the Steelers and laugh at me but when you look at him only completing ten passes for the game I think you understand where I am coming from. In the regular season last year Tebow ranked 37th among quarterbacks in DVOA which I will explain a little later with the current Denver QB, Peyton Manning.
Manning didn't play in 2011 with a pretty bad neck problem but is back and signed a massive five year, $96 million deal to play with Denver. A little long for my liking if I am a Denver fan but Manning is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game with nearly 55,000 yards and 399 touchdown passes and has been a rock at the position for so many years for Indianapolis before leaving after missing the 2011 season.
There really isn't a lot to go off when you talk about Manning. He will be 36 years old and hasn't thrown a pass since 2010 when he threw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns while completing better than 66% of his passes. What would concern me if I am a Broncos fan is that he literally hasn't played football in such a long time. I know he has been through practices and preseason and stuff like that but nothing can really prepare you for a regular season game.
In 2010, his last full season, Manning had a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of 1,400 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of 19% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. To put those numbers in some more context the DYAR number ranked 3rd among the 46 qualified quarterbacks and his DVOA ranks 6th. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Either way Manning is among the best of the best at his position and while he won't be in top game form this first game back he is still scary good.
The running game was what led the Broncos into the playoffs next year. They acquired Willis McGahee after his tenure in Baltimore was up and all he did was rush for nearly 1,200 yards and four touchdowns on only 249 attempts. I really didn't think he was going to do a lot in Denver because I really didn't think that he was all that amazing in Baltimore but he really was effective last season.
McGahee finished the year 12th with a 131 DYAR and 17th with a 4.3% DVOA and while Tebow got a lot of the credit for the ground game in Denver McGahee really made that happen. With Manning now at the helm I am not sure that the Broncos are going to run the ball as much as they did a year ago when they ran a league-best 34.4 times per game which was almost ten more attempts a game than they ran in 2010. With Indianapolis in 2010 Manning's offense ran the ball around 25 times a game and in 2009 they ran the ball only 22 times per game. That isn't a lot of touches and it is going to be a huge change for the Broncos from a year ago.
Knowshon Moreno is the main backup in Denver and was the starter going into last season but has had a really hard time staying on the field in his three seasons. His rookie year in 2009 he appeared in all 16 games but only appeared in 13 games in 2010 and then a mere seven games last year. Over 35 career games he has gained 1,905 yards on 466 carries and 12 touchdowns. He also is good out of the backfield making 37 catches in 2010 and 28 in 2009 so there will be that threat coming out of the backfield.
Lance Ball is also on the team after working as the primary backup last season carrying the ball 96 times for 402 yards and a score but is listed third on the depth chart so it is really uncertain what his role is going to be with the team. Ball has only appeared in 27 career games after breaking into the league in 2008 with the Titans and spending the 2009 season on the practice squad.
The receivers on the Broncos staff automatically become both better with Manning and they should have added success this year because of it. Running the triple option last season really left a lot of opportunities to catch the football in the huddle to the point where the Broncos caught a league-low 217 passes which was 23 fewer receptions than the next closest team. That will change this year and Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are going to be big benefactors of this.
The Broncos traded their top target, Brandon Lloyd, last season and that took a lot of the punch out of a passing offense that really didn’t have much punch to begin with. Thomas is the biggest returning key but only finished last season with a DYAR of 37 (62nd among receivers) and a -5.9% DVOA which was good for 62nd in the league. Of course much of this was due to the fact that the Broncos couldn’t throw the ball but Thomas has good size at 6’3, 229 pounds and averaged 17.2 yards per catch on 32 catches which included the key catch that downed the Steelers in the playoff game.
Decker ended up being the leading receiver for the Broncos last season with 44 catches for 612 yards and eight touchdowns but wasn’t as productive as Thomas was in terms of advanced statistics. He accumulated a DYAR of only two and a -12.4% DVOA who was 72nd best in the NFL which puts him behind Hines Ward in 2011 production wise. Decker wasn’t very dynamic last season as he had only four games where he had five or more receptions and only six games where he had more than 50 yards receiving. Over the last three games of the season where he played, which included the playoff win over the Steelers, Decker only caught one pass for five yards. He was a pretty streaky player where he would go three or four games with some production and then would be lost for the next two or three. Manning will help that but that remains to be seen.
Maybe the most interesting pass catching option for the Broncos will be the tight end position. In Indianapolis Manning was a huge fan of his tight ends highlighted by Dallas Clark and it should be no different in Denver. Manning will be throwing to a pair of them with starter Joel Dreessen and former Manning teammate Jacob Tamme. Dreessen comes to the Broncos from the Texans where he caught 28 passes for 353 yards and six touchdowns and was very productive with the ninth best DYAR (119) and second best DVOA (40.5%) among tight ends. This, of course, was in limited catches but with the way that Manning loves to use his tight ends and the difficulty that the Steelers have covering tight ends this could be a huge concern.
Tamme is one of those guys that everyone is calling underrated. He had a great year in 2010 with Peyton Manning but slipped back to earth with the subpar quarterbacks that he played with in 2011. In 2010 Tamme caught 67 balls for 631 yards and four touchdowns and supported a healthy 95 DYAR and an 8.0% DVOA. Back with Manning this year should do wonders for Tamme and teamed up with Dreessen could be very formidable for the Broncos against the Steelers.
I know I have said it many times in this section but you can throw out last year’s stats when it comes to the Broncos receivers and passing game from 2011 because this will be a completely different team. I think a prime example of this might be the project stats for both Decker and Thomas for this season. According to Football Outsiders (where I get most of my stats from for the preview) Decker was projected to catch 45 passes for 637 yards and four touchdowns with Tebow at the helm and Thomas was slatted for a 52/796/5 line if Tebow was under center. The numbers drastically go up with Manning. With Petyon Decker is projected to go 69/1,013/7 while Thomas is projected to be at 70/1,077/7. I know these are just projections but that is how much different this team is going to be with Manning.
The Broncos line returns pretty much the same as a year ago when reading from left to right of Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, Chris Kuper and Orlando Franklin.
There isn’t really much to go through here so I am going to copy what I wrote about the Broncos offensive line before the playoff game. The stats you see here are going to be all from the 2011 regular season:
The Broncos rank 11th in the league with an adjusted line yards (ALY) of 4.19. Adjusted line yards (ALY) is a formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages: losses: 120% value, 0-4 Yards: 100% value, 5-10 Yards: 50% value, 11+ Yards: 0% value. These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. There are two main statistics that deal around the line of scrimmage which can tell you a lot about the line. The first is power success which is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. The Broncos ranks near bottom of the league with a 56% power success (26th) but they make up for that by ranking 9th in the league at a 17% stuffed percentage. Stuffed rank is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Broncos might not be converting a ton of the third and short situations but they are one of the most consistent in the league in at least gaining something, especially on early downs.
Denver might be pretty good at running the football but they are one of the worst in the league at protecting the quarterback. The offensive line gave up 41 sacks on the season which isn’t near the league leader (54, Arizona) but when you look at the Broncos’ adjusted sack rate this gives you a different look into their sack rating. Adjusted sack rate gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Denver ranks 29th in the league at 9.2% which is well above the NFL average of 6.7%..
Denver makes its living running the football to the right side of the offensive line as they post ALY’s that rank second off the right tackle (5.09) and fifth off the right end (4.51). This is going to be interesting to see how they do against the Steelers on this since they are missing its starting right tackle for the duration of the playoffs. Consequently the Broncos do run the ball to the right side more to the left side. They run a combined 14% off the left end/tackle while they run 12% of the plays off the right tackle and 6% off the right end.
Some of that might stay true and consistent but for me it will be interesting to see how the line converts from what was a spread option offense with Tebow to an offense that is going to be more of a traditional passing offense with Manning. I am sure it will be much easier for the Broncos lineman when they know where the quarterback is going to be and know that the play called in the huddle is probably going to be what they see as the play unfolds. The Broncos weren’t very good at protecting the passer but I am not sure how much we can put on Tebow and how much we can put on the line for not being able to block. The addition of Manning is actually going to help the run game because there is at least a threat of a passing game and since they were the best in the league last year running the ball that shouldn’t change much this year.
Overall the Broncos defense ranked 30th with a 1.6% DVOA (remember negative is good for defense) and they stayed true to that with a weighted defense of 1.6% which ranks them 16th. Weight defense is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season. This actually shows that the Denver defense got better as the year went on and that is what we saw in the playoff game and what the league saw down the stretch run.
The Broncos actually mimic its offense when it comes to defense where they struggled more against the pass and than the run. The Denver pass defense ranked 22nd against the pass with a DVOA of 10.2% while its run defense is a little better than average (13th in NFL) with a DVOA of -8.0% so the defense isn’t great in any one facet but they are definitely much better against the run than they are the pass.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is the team’s leading tackler with 97 total tackles (67 solo) from his linebacker position but doesn’t have a sack this year but has forced three fumbles. Joe Mays returns as the team's second leading tackler and will replace the team's second leading tackler last year in D.J. Williams. Mays made 75 total tackles with eight of those going for loss which co-led the team.
The real heart of the defense for the Broncos are the two pass rushers in linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil. Miller had a sensational rookie season with 11.5 sacks and 64 tackles.. Dumervil as he has 9.5 sacks and had at least a half sack in eight of the last nine games in the regular season. These two players are going to give the Steelers fits and you can bet they are the key points in the defense. The Broncos are going to attack the Steelers line which has been beat up with some injuries but should be better than when they played in Denver last season. All things considered I am scared to death of what Dumervil and Miller can do to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offensive line.
Champ Bailey and the newly acquired Tracy Porter are the corners for Denver and both have a combined 19 years of experience. Bailey had a team-high ten passes defended and a pair of interceptions while Porter had nine pass breakups and a pick for the Saints. The safeties are a different story because the Broncos will have a pair of new safeties this season in Mike Adams and Rahim Moore. Adams is an eight year vet and has spent the last five seasons in Cleveland. Last season he defended six passes and picked off three passes with 64 total tackles. Moore was with the Broncos last season, starting in seven games, and is only in his second season. He had 28 total tackles and a pick. Former Jet Jim Leonard is on the team in the revamped secondary after he only appeared in 13 games last season with 48 tackles and a pick.
-Different people are going to say different things in the Steelers locker room but one thing seems to be pretty straight across the board from the things we are hearing from the media: the Steelers are still not happy about losing in Denver last season in the playoffs. It stings and it is still in their minds. I know this is a different season and this won't really make much of a difference in the game itself but the Steelers have thrived in the past when they are in this kind of role. A lot of people are taking the Broncos and those same people are talking about the Broncos as a possible Super Bowl contender. The Steelers are old, they are washed up, they have the same offensive line and etc. is all we hear and it wouldn't surprise me if they are using that as a chip on their shoulder to ramp up for this game. It will be fun to watch because the Steelers are going to be geeked up. I do have some fear that they might let their emotions get the best of them but I am not sure if we will see that.
-A huge storyline this offseason was the hire of the new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. The offense is going to be a good bit different from the years of Bruce Arians and while the Steelers have had some time to work on it I still think we are going to see some growing pains with the offense but I think overall this offense is going to be vastly different. I don't think we are going to see the run oriented offense that Haley ran in Kansas City and I don't think we will see the pass happy attack that he had in Arizona. I think it will be an interesting mix of plays this year as the Steelers will try to run and pass the ball on a more equal basis but will go with what works as teams present them different defenses. Haley has proven in the past he can call an offense for a winning team and I am excited to see that in action.
-The Steelers have been losing some key pieces due to injuries this preseason but one addition that is going to pay huge dividends is the return of Mike Wallace. Wallace was a well documented holdout this season but he is back and ready to play. I am not sure how much he knows the playbook but I am not really all that concerned about it. He brings a punch to this offense and was outstanding in the first half of last season. Despite not playing well at the tail end of last season Wallace produced the fifth best DYAR (399) and the eighth best DVOA (31.4%) so while he didn't play great you can't argue that he changes the game. I have been a huge advocate that just merely having Wallace on the field opens things up for Antonio Brown and that might be just as important as any catch he makes on Sunday night.
-I talked about it a little above with the Denver defensive paragraphs but the Steelers offensive line is really going to have to step up in a big way. Right after the draft it seemed as if the Steelers had two guys who were going to step in and be big time players this year but that isn't how the season is going to start. Mike Adams was the second round draft pick and isn't ready to start while first round pitch David DeCastro was primed to be the starter at right guard but went down with a knee injury in the third preseason game and was placed on the eight game IR. Willie Colon is back which will help guard position but Ramon Foster will have to fill in for DeCastro and Max Starks will be the starter at left tackle. Overall this first game is going to have a better offensive line than last year but it clearly won't be as good as they thought it might be a couple of months ago.
-The running backs are going to be a ton of fun to watch. While Rashard Mendenhall is surprisingly ruled as doubtful (rather than out) that doesn't mean the Steelers don't have a stable of players from which to choose from. Isaac Redman will most likely get the start with Jonathan Dwyer probably getting a good bit of carries himself. Dwyer looked really good in the preseason and it probably wouldn't surprise me if he came out and ran well early and got a ton of carries this early in the season. When you talk about electric you can not get to the name Chris Rainey fast enough. It will be fun to see how he is used and what situations he will be in the game because he is a game changer. I wouldn't be shocked to see him in third down situations and catching the ball out of the backfield because when he gets the ball into space he makes people miss.
-Can the Steelers defense get to the quarterback? Last year they didn't do a particularly good job of that as they only collected only 35 sacks and registered a 6.8% adjusted sack rate which was only 14th best in the league. They need to get to the quarterback more and cause some turnovers but with the injury to James Harrison and the inability last season I am not sure how effective they are going to be going into the game. I would like to say that they can get back after it but I think this might be another year that they are going to struggle a little bit getting to the quarterback. Hopefully they can force a few more turnovers to make that a moot point.
-The secondary is going to get a huge test and there are going to be some relatively fresh faces back there. Ryan Clark will not be playing since he has the sickle cell trait so that will force Ryan Mundy in to be a starter and with the departure of William Gay that will put Keenan Lewis into the starting cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor. Cortez Allen will most likely be the nickel back and all of those guys are going to have to show up in a big way against Manning.
Prediction - The Steelers come out and put on a good show in Denver. They aren't happy about the last time they were there and they take it out on Manning and the Broncos. It is going to be a close game but in the end I think the Steelers pull it out by a field goal, Steelers 27, Broncos 24