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Steelers-Broncos pregame stretch

January 6, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) vs. Denver Broncos (8-8)

Sunday, 4:30 p.m., CBS

Weather – or not?: It’ll be sunny and 36 on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. (Did you know it’s no longer Invesco Field? We didn’t either until we started researching the type of turf there for this blog, which is natural grass, btw.) Anyway, with that weather and with all the black and gold sure to be in the stands, if it weren’t for the shortness of breath, the Steelers players might think they were at home.

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Annoyance factor: We think this crew has slipped to fifth among the big five (1. Nessler/Mayock; 2 Buck/Aikman; 3. Michaels/Collinsworth; 4. Tirico/Jaws/Gruden) and it’s time for CBS to pull the plug on them. They won’t, though, for the same reason Berman is still hosting at ESPN: Because networks are run by insecure people who lack fresh ideas and are quick to dump anything that doesn’t succeed immediately and hang on way too long to anything that once succeeded.

Referee: Ron Winter (not a typo…)

Competence factor: To many fans, Winter is the poster boy for officiating incompetence. There’s a “Fire Ron Winter” Facebook page and if you do a Google search for his name you’ll find online manifestos alleging blown calls, robbery and vendettas against the Bengals, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Chiefs, Falcons and Giants, to name but a few. Yet, league officials obviously see him (and grade he and his crew) as among the best in business, as evidenced by his presence in the postseason three of the past four years. To be fair, we don’t get to watch and evaluate every one of Winter’s game, so we’ll have to take it on faith that he has some good ones, but the evidence on the other side of the ledger, especially when the Steelers are involved, is pretty impressive, too:

+ After a loss to the Falcons in 2006, league pillar Dan Rooney was so incensed by Winter’s crew he publicly criticized the stripes and drew a $25,000 fine for it.

+ In October of 2008, Winter called a critical late hit penalty (on a hit that wasn’t late, involved no helmet contact and no driving into the ground) on James Harrison in a Monday night game at Jacksonville that resulted in Harrison being fined $20,000 for saying “these refs should be fined for making bad calls.”

+ In November of 2010, after complaints from the Steelers, the NFL admitted Winter and his crew blew two key calls in a game with the Bengals, a roughing-the-passer call on Casey Hampton and a phantom pass interference on Ike Taylor.

+ Earlier this season, Winter et. al called 20, count ‘em, 20 penalties during a Monday night game. Thankfully (we think), they’ve only average 12 per game in the last month of the season.

In other words, buckle up.

ONE OTHER THING: Don’t forget the postseason sudden-death rules are in effect (see link at right for a refresher).

The line: Pittsburgh -9

Smarts say: This line seems to indicate Vegas believes bettors are much more concerned about Denver’s offensive problems (read: Tim Tebow) than they are the Steelers’ woes. The over/under of 35 would get us somewhere in the neighborhood of 23-13 Steelers. The fine folks at pointed out earlier this week that the “over” has come through in all seven playoff games Mike Tomlin has coached.

Key matchup: Steelers’ Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders vs. Broncos’ secondary

Because: Yes, the Pittsburgh tackles vs. Elvis Dumervil is a critical one, too, but this one’s more important for three reasons. First, part of the equation for dealing with Dumervil is quick throws to the shifty wideouts (what passes for a screen pass in the Pittsburgh offense) who need to make one man miss to keep moving the chains. Second, if Pittsburgh wants to avoid a “Tebow Time” situation they’ll need to get at least one catch-and-run touchdown from their playmakers in the game’s first half. We’ve said it for three weeks and it’s amplified this week: Pittsburgh can’t rely on Ben Roethlisberger right now for rambling scrambling scores. It needs its wideouts to step up and make something happen. Third, tackling in the secondary has been a problem for Denver, especially with Brian Dawkins missing time with a neck injury.

Next year’s schedule:



Quick thoughts:

+ Philip and SanAntonio both coming to Heinz Field. Should be fun.

+ Raiders game is a loss. Write it down right now and see if we’re not right.

+ Early speculation says the Steelers could be going to London to play the Chiefs or Dublin to play the Cowboys. We’ll believe the second one when we see it. Can’t believe Jerry Jones could afford to give up a home game.

+ 12-4

Quick hits:

+ Does cold weather affect Mike Wallace’s performance? We got to wondering about that after watching Wallace whine (via Twitter) about the cold in Cleveland before last week’s game then go out and catch one pass for 11 yards. A quick look at the stats provides enough evidence to make it a fair question. This season, Wallace has not had a 100-yard game since Oct. 23 at Arizona (dome). Last season, Wallace did have three 100-yard outings in the month of December but when the Steelers opened with two frigid night playoff games, he recorded 3 catches for 20 yards against the Ravens and a single catch for 6 yards against the Jets. In nine post-Halloween games in his rookie season of 2009, Wallace caught 18 total passes. Now, that’s not a huge sample and it could just be that Wallace is a streaky player, but it’s something to make you go hmmmmm.

+ Speaking of streaky players, we detailed in this space before last year’s Super Bowl just how streaky Troy Polamalu is and how many of his highlight-reel plays have occurred in bunches during his career. If that pattern continues, it could bode well for the Steelers this year. After a very ordinary first 13 weeks, Polamalu has been lighting it up the past four games with 23 tackles, six passes defensed and both his interceptions.

+ We’ve gotten this far in the stretch without mentioning the loss of Rashard Mendenhall and that illustrates an interesting dichotomy. Many in the national media have spent the week projecting doom and gloom for Pittsburgh because of Mendenhall’s injury while simultaneously denigrating Isaac Redman’s skill set. Meanwhile, most of the people who watch every Steelers game, both fans and media, don’t seem that concerned, with many alleging Redman is a better back than Mendenhall anyway. We think the truth lies somewhere in between. Redman is less of a dancer than Mendenhall and definitely a harder runner, but he’s not as good catching the ball or protecting the passer. Bottom line, we might see the Steelers with a little better pass/rush balance, which could open some things up downfield. On the other hand, we’re probably losing a little bit of the playbook (probably more than a little bit when John Clay is in) and might give up an extra sack along the way.

The pick: As pronounced here after Week 4 and demonstrated weekly since then on the field, the Steelers are no longer a dominant football team. If they’re going to make any noise in the postseason, it will be with veterans’ wile, champions’ hearts and the fleet feet of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. That said, there is one team in the field that Pittsburgh could conceivably blow out … and that team will line up across from them Sunday afternoon. The Steelers are not a good matchup for the Broncos and if they can force Tim Tebow into a couple mistakes early this game could get very ugly. That said, Pittsburgh faced another shaky rookie earlier this year in Blaine Gabbert and almost allowed him to beat them. We think it will be a different story Sunday (and you know how rare it is for use to predict this kind of score)…Steelers 28-10.

Last week: Isaac Redman’s fumbles put an end to our streak of double wins, but we were right straight up to go to 12-4 there and 10-6 vs. the spread.

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