Come on, Steelers fans.
You’re not scared, but you’re concerned.
No? Well, what if I told you that Ray Rice was out for the year, that Ed Reed wasn’t playing this weekend, and that Joe Flacco was still hobbled by a high ankle sprain? You’d likely say the Ravens’ odds of winning this week are slim to none.
But I’ll bet you aren’t saying that about your team, are you? No, and why should you? You’re Steelers fans. You root for arguably the best franchise in American sports; a franchise with a one-man-down, next-man-up philosophy; a franchise that just wins.
But let’s be real.
You’re not scared because, well, Tim Tebow doesn’t scare you. And maybe he shouldn’t. The Broncos have lost three straight; Tebow looked particularly inept against Buffalo and Kansas City, going a combined 19-of-51 for 245 yards, one touchdown and six turnovers; and the Steelers have played in three of the last six Super Bowls – winning two of them – with a lot of the same faces they have now.
So like I said, you’re not concerned. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s assess Pittsburgh’s potential woes heading into Mile High on Sunday.
Will playing without safety Ryan Clark doom the Steelers? Clark, who will be inactive due to health concerns regarding a blood condition, had a career-high 100 tackles this season and played in more than 98 percent of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps. So he’ll be missed, no question. But one player does not the NFL’s top-ranked defense make – and it’s not like the Broncos air it out 50 times a game, either. Losing Clark hurts, but it isn’t devastating.
Can Isaac Redman answer the bell? With Rashard Mendenhall out for the year with a torn ACL, Isaac Redman will carry the load for Pittsburgh out of the backfield. Redman, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry, fumbled twice on Sunday against Cleveland but did touch the ball 22 times for 110 yards – this after touching the ball 25 times in his last four games combined. If nothing else, he’ll be fresh come Sunday.
Can Ben Roethlisberger be effective? This is by far the Steelers’ most pressing question. Big Ben sprained his ankle in a 14-3 win against Cleveland in Week 14. Since then, Pittsburgh has scored three points in a loss at San Francisco, beaten St. Louis 27-0 in a game in which Big Ben didn’t play, and won at Cleveland 13-9. Put another way, Roethlisberger has thrown one touchdown since the injury – and none in his last two games. But forget the touchdowns. So much of Big Ben’s game is predicated on mobility, buying time in the pocket and freelancing on broken plays. If his ankle won’t allow that, Big Ben – and the Pittsburgh passing attack – becomes much easier to defend.
And yet, despite all this, the Steelers are heavy favorites to beat Denver even though Tebow is 7-4 as a starter this year and will be amped beyond comprehension for his first playoff game. That said, facing the reigning AFC champion is a tall order. If Denver is going to win this game, Tebow has to make plays with his legs. It’s as simple as that. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Tebow’s yards-per carry average has fallen each month, from 6.1 in October to 5.7 in November to 5.0 in December to 2.7 in January. Teams are forcing Tebow to stay in the pocket and beat them with his arm, and lately, he hasn’t been able to do so. Establishing a ground game with Willis McGahee is obviously important, but even more important is buying time for Tebow so he can scramble in the pocket and find open receivers.
Bottom Line: This game will come down to the fourth quarter and be much closer than people think. But eventually, the Steelers, as they often do, will find a way to win.
Prediction: Steelers 16, Broncos 13.
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told.
Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale