Pittsburgh may have won 12 games, but they did not take the AFC North and, as such, they travel to the heights of Mile High where they face the AFC West winners, the 8-8 Denver Broncos. The home field advantage at Mile High is a significant one, claiming its first victim even before the teams have arrived to play. Steelers’ safety Ryan Clark has been told by his head coach that he will not be playing in this game, after the last trip to Denver caused him to have a nasty medical reaction to the rarified air that resulted in a hospital stint and a serious risk to his health.
Pittsburgh is reeling from several injuries in recent weeks that have robbed them of some of their better players, and they have struggled in their past few games because of this. They may be, in theory, the much better side, but they showed last week against Cleveland that they are unlikely to blow anybody away, let alone a playoff team.
The Steelers are four wins better than the Broncos this season, but this is the playoffs where anything can happen, and if there is any time for Tim Tebow to prove that he really does just get the job done, this would be a pretty good stage to prove it on.
Tim Tebow vs. Troy Polamalu
There is no safety in the game–and maybe no player–with better instincts and timing than Troy Polamalu. He seems to have a sixth sense about when the ball is getting snapped and when he can move around to confuse an offense and it leads to him consistently making big plays when it counts. Polamalu finished the season as our top-graded safety (+19.3), scoring positively in coverage, against the run, and on the blitz. He may have only got two picks, but he notched 13 passes defensed, significantly more than any other safety. His 34 defensive stops were also third among safeties and he earned nine total pressures on the season coming on the blitz. On the other side of the ball, the Denver Broncos are being led by Tim Tebow, who remains an incredibly conservative and ineffective passer (-22.7 passing), and can be easily confused and forced to hesitate by coverages. The Broncos need Tebow (+12.5 rushing) to not only make a few plays with his legs, but to be able to pass the ball just enough to keep the chains moving and take advantage of the opportunities the Denver option offense creates. If Tebow can make those plays, the Broncos have a chance. Troy Polamalu is one player that can confuse and bait even the best quarterbacks, so it wouldn’t be a surprise in the least if he was able to force at least one major mistake from Tebow in the passing game.
Brodrick Bunkley vs. the Pittsburgh interior
It seems to have flown very much under the radar, but Brodrick Bunkley (+28.4 run defense) has had a fantastic season as a run-stuffing nose tackle for the Broncos. He’s been one of the top defensive tackles against the run all year, and he can disrupt even the best rushing attacks if they try and run past his gap responsibility. The Steelers are still not sure if they can count on Maurkice Pouncey to start at center and even if he can, hampered by a bad ankle, that will be a matchup the Broncos would like their chances in. If Pouncey can’t start, the picture doesn’t get much better, with the Steelers lacking anybody they could reasonably expect to deal with Bunkley single-handedly. How Pittsburgh attempts to neutralize Bunkley play will be a crucial aspect of the Pittsburgh running game, especially as they are now deep into the bench at running back with injuries, the latest to starter Rashard Mendenhall.
Von Miller vs. Marcus Gilbert
Before his injury, this would have been one to focus on because of the potential carnage Von Miller could have caused to the right side of the Pittsburgh O-line, but now it’s a much more intriguing battle. Miller (+50.4 overall) has been a shadow of his former self since being forced to play with a cast on his injured thumb. Not being able to use his hands has killed his pass rushing ability and left him unable to beat blockers in the run game nearly as effectively as he could previously. Marcus Gilbert has had games where he has done reasonably well, but he is coming off a very poor day against Cleveland where he coughed up a sack and three more pressures as well as a penalty and some poor run blocking. Miller would have been far too much for Gilbert had he been healthy, but now this becomes an interesting matchup the winner of which could go a long way to deciding this game. With Ben Roethlisberger still clearly and badly limited by his injured ankle, the state of the Steelers’ offensive line and pass protection has taken on an importance much greater than it had been when they could rely on Big Ben simply to evade the rush in the backfield-now they have to play the rush honestly and keep their signal-caller as clean as they can.