DENVER – Five things to watch heading into the Broncos’ first playoff game in nearly six years, a wild-card duel with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:
Forget about the rumors regarding practice snaps, which backup quarterback Brady Quinn debunked. Benching Tim Tebow would make little sense at this point unless his play somehow worsens on Sunday. Quinn hasn’t thrown a pass in a game that counted since December 2009.
Denver executive vice president John Elway insisted to The Denver Post that Tebow needed to “pull the trigger” after looking tentative and indecisive in last week’s loss to the Chiefs, when he went 6-of-22 and had the lowest completion percentage for a Broncos quarterback with at least 20 passes since Steve Tensi in 1967. But when Tebow was more decisive, as he was against Buffalo a week earlier, he threw three interceptions. And there’s the matter of his unfortunate run of fumbles — one lost to the opponent in each of his last five games.
If Tebow “pulls the trigger,” will it gun down the Steelers — or backfire in the Broncos’ faces? At this point, no one knows for certain, although the numbers of the last few weeks don’t offer much cause for optimism as the Broncos’ 7-1, Tebow-comeback-propelled run drifts farther away with each passing week.
But the overall point of “pulling the trigger” is this: if you make mistakes, make them at full speed. In Buffalo, Tebow did — and his three interceptions came when the Broncos were in comeback mode, leading to some forced passes. Against Kansas City, his errors were a result of hesitation.
“I think especially the more you get into tighter games, playoff games, you’ve got to be aggressive,” Tebow said. “You’ve also got to be smart, but you’ve got to be aggressive and pull the trigger at times and it’s something that we’ll have to do.”
The emphasis is on the Broncos’ collective “we,” not just Tebow.
“Tim has made his mistakes, but it’s not one guy,” said offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. “We have 11 guys on the field and we’re all accountable for that, myself included. I could help him. I wish I knew certain coverage was there at times, and I’d call the game different.”
2. NO MISTAKES — AND FORCE A FEW FROM PITTSBURGH.
This is possible; the Steelers have the worst giveaway-takeaway ratio in the AFC (minus-13) — which is also the worst for any playoff team since the 2004 Green Bay Packers.
But it depends on the Broncos reversing their recent trends of being overly generous (nine giveaways in the last three games, including seven out of Tebow’s hands) and underwhelmingly thieving (their only takeaway in the last three games came on a punt return by the Chiefs last week). On the first half of that equation, the Broncos’ fate likely rests on the restoration work done on Tebow’s confidence this week; for the second half, it comes down to the defense.
“I think it’s putting our guys in the right defense, putting them in situations where they can make plays,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “There’s been a few times the ball has been tipped around in the air and it’s been up there for anybody to grab and we haven’t been able to get it. We have to find ways to get the ball when those opportunities arise.”
It can be easier said than done.
“Every time we step on the field, there’s an opportunity (for takeaways),” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But this is the playoffs. They’re going to come in polished. They’re going to be ready. They’re going to be aware of the things that they need to correct. It’s going to be tough.”
3. DEFENDING MULTIPLE THREATS.
Whether the Broncos defense was at full strength or not, it often fell into trouble when trying to account for more than two potent downfield targets, as was the case against the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots, each of whom throttled the Broncos in part by receiving big plays from their third and fourth receiving options. Pass-catchers like Jordy Nelson, Titus Young and Aaron Hernandez were often more damaging to the Broncos than threats such as Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
The Steelers present a similar conundrum. Their two leading receivers are Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who by themselves are potent threats, giving the Steelers more speed from their top two wideouts than anyone else in the league. Together, they made the Steelers the first team since the 2001 “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams to have two receivers with at least 50 receptions and more than 16 yards per catch.
Yet simply keeping Wallace and Brown from making lengthy downfield receptions and forcing them to settle for short-to-medium-length gains isn’t enough.
“That’s the approach some people would take, but the 15-yard play is a first down, and we don’t want them to nitpick first downs all the way down the field,” cornerback Andre’ Goodman said. “There’s no easy way to cover speed. At the end of the day, it’s a challenge. We’ve got to have the courage to challenge these guys.”
Beyond them are Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller, two players whose speed isn’t what it once was and whose best seasons appear to be behind them, but remain capable of dissecting a foe who pays too much attention to Wallace and Brown.
Not having Brian Dawkins doesn’t help either, although the defense has gradually tightened up and fixed the communication issues that plagued the defense when the 16-year veteran safety succumbed to a neck injury four games ago.
“I think he’s our emotional leader. He keeps us fired up,” said defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. “He’s also a veteran player that does a good job of communicating back there on the back end. That’s why we felt it was necessary to get (third-year safety David) Bruton in there to fill that void. I don’t know if anybody fills the void of his leadership and his ability to get us excited about playing.”
Dawkins remains valuable as a de facto coach on the sideline, and multiple players pointed to the guidance he’s provided from the bench as a reason why the defense has steadily improved since conceding 41 points to the Patriots on Dec. 18. But since Dawkins joined the team in 2009, the Broncos have never won a game without him in the lineup.
4. PRESSURING BIG BEN.
There’s little doubt that Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been the same since he suffered a high ankle sprain. While he rallied the night he suffered the injury to throw a game-clinching touchdown pass to defeat Cleveland 14-3, his numbers in his two starts since then aren’t overly impressive: 48 completions in 84 attempts (57.1 percent) for 551 yards, no touchdowns an three interceptions. The Steelers have just 16 points in those two games.
“Obviously, he is not as mobile as he was,” Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “A lot of the plays we make outside of the pocket are not happening. The biggest thing is that the football he throws is going higher.”
Roethlisberger characterized his sprained ankle as being about a “five” on a one-to-10 scale this week. While his mobility is impaired, the Broncos believe his overall strength remains intact.
“He’s still shrugging guys off,” Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers said. “He looks wounded, but he’s still making plays and they’re still winning. He’s a tough guy to get down.”
The longer he stays upright, the tougher it will be for the Broncos’ defenders to contain the Steelers’ outside speed.
“You’ve got guys that are fast running fast routes and then now, all of a sudden, they’re running a second route because they’re getting open for him,” Bailey said. “It presents a problem. Hopefully, my guys get him down, one time, one shot, one tackle, just like that.”
Added Goodman: “The way we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win from a defensive standpoint is being able to put pressure on him. Whether he’s wounded or not, that’s the plan.”
5. TOWELS IN THE CROWD.
How many Steelers fans managed to get their hands on tickets — and will their infiltration of the Denver crowd match the numbers from 2007 and 2009 regular-season games, when the number of Pittsburgh supporters appeared to reach five figures? We’ll probably have our best idea when kickoff nears and the fans are asked to twirl their towels — which is the same point in the 2005 AFC Championship when Broncos onlookers not only realized they weren’t alone, but were joined by a Steelers rooting section as rabid and noisy as a road-team throng in the Southeastern Conference or the English Premier League.
The Broncos will give away orange towels to everyone who enters the building, but it’s likely that a few will go unused by the Steelers fans who bring their own Terrible Towels into the stadium. If there are enough of them, the Broncos will find themselves in the same situation that greeted the Chargers and Vikings when they played Denver in San Diego and Minneapolis in recent weeks, where there were enough Broncos fans to occasionally drown out the home faithful.
It’s part of the reality of pro football in 2012. Displaced fans no longer abandon their old loyalties when they move, since the Internet and small, home-sized satellite dishes allow fans to follow their team as easily from 2,000 miles away as down the street from the stadium. There will be Steelers fans at Sports Authority Field on Sunday. The only question is how loud they will be — and that will depend on how the game goes.