By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers travel to Denver for a Monday night game against the Broncos:
STEELERS KICK COVERAGE VS. BRONCOS KR EDDIE ROYAL: Through eight weeks of the 2009 NFL season, there were 658 kickoff returns and nine of those were returned for touchdowns, a rate of 1.4 percent. Through seven weeks of the Steelers 2009 season, their opponents had 33 kickoff returns and two of those were returned for touchdowns, a rate of 6.1 percent. This has gotten Coach Mike Tomlin's attention, and it will be especially critical for the Steelers to get this area straightened out in advance of facing Royal, who returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in a game against San Diego a few weeks ago. "When things aren't going well, when something is broken, that's how I know to fix it – to get back to the minute details in terms of how schemes are built, or adjusted and played," said Tomlin. "That's what we're doing. We're looking at putting together the best combination of people, maybe moving some people around, maybe inserting some people, removing some people. That's what you do when you're not having success. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's any better than the original plan, because if it was, you'd have probably done it the first time. But when you're not having success, you make changes. And that's what we're in the process of doing." The return of Andre Frazier from a thigh injury should help as well.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. BRONCOS S BRIAN DAWKINS: The most productive trip to Denver for this particular group of Steelers players was for the 2005 AFC Championship Game, but the most recent trip was not so fulfilling. In 2007, the Steelers lost a game to the Broncos on a last-second field goal, a defeat that could be traced to turnovers. On that day, Ben Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes, but he also was intercepted twice and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Turnovers again figure to be a tipping point when these teams meet on Monday night. The Broncos added the 36-year-old Dawkins as an unrestricted free agent some months ago to stabilize a secondary that has been bad despite the presence of All-Pro Champ Bailey at one cornerback spot. So far, Dawkins has delivered. "The communication back there is some of the best that I have been a part of," said Dawkins. "The way that we talk in the back end makes the game that much easier."
STEELERS DL NICK EASON, CHRIS HOKE AND ZIGGY HOOD VS. BRONCOS RG CHRIS KUPER AND RT TYLER POLUMBUS: Injuries have impacted these respective areas for both teams, what with Polumbus making his first start at right tackle in place of Ryan Harris, and with the Steelers being without Aaron Smith and Travis Kirschke. For the Steelers, those two injuries really have depleted the defensive line to the point where the team's options are rather limited. As a veteran with the most time at the position, Nick Eason will start at left defensive end, and depending upon how well he plays/holds up in the altitude, the rest of the snaps figure to be divided somehow among Ziggy Hood and maybe Chris Hoke, who also will be used in his usual role as the second nose tackle when Casey Hampton needs a breather. The Steelers really don't like to throw rookies into the breach unless it's necessary, and so the recently-returned Sunny Harris probably isn't seen by them as much of an option. While also a rookie, Hood has been working there in the scheme longer than Harris. Last season, the Steelers went to Jacksonville with three of their top six defensive linemen out with injuries, and they held Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to a combined 26 yards on 15 carries.
STEELERS LT MAX STARKS VS. BRONCOS OLB ELVIS DUMERVIL: It's been quite a season so far for Max Starks, but such is life in the NFL for a starting left tackle. He already has had to deal with Kyle Vanden Bosch, Antwan Odom and Jared Allen, and now along comes Dumervil and his conference-leading 10 sacks. One of the positive changes instituted by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been to use Dumervil in ways that play to his strength, which is rushing the passer. Instead of trying to make Dumervil a well-rounded player in terms of rushing and covering, Nolan has used Dumervil in a variety of ways but always in a search-and-destroy mission on the opposing quarterback. Starks has been playing at a high level throughout this season, but in this particular matchup he will have to deal with the disadvantage of the crowd noise. But just as Nolan has done things to take advantage of Dumervil's strengths, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians isn't about to make Starks deal with all of it by himself.
STEELERS SECONDARY VS. BRONCOS RECEIVERS: In this particular situation, the key part of the matchup is going to be how well the Steelers defensive backs tackle after the catch. The Broncos run a lot of short routes, crossing routes, timing routes, all designed to take advantage of what Kyle Orton does well, and maybe more importantly, their passing attack doesn't expose his arm strength. Brandon Marshall, Jabar Gaffney, Eddie Royal and Tony Scheffler are the guys to whom Orton will be throwing most often on plays from the shotgun formation where he gets the ball out of his hand quickly. It will be tough to sack Orton on those kinds of plays, and so crisp, physical tackling after the catch can be the defense's best option. Over time, if executed well, this will have an effect on receivers.