Taking a look at where the Broncos are in May, it will be a daunting task. But one the Steelers need to get used to. With perhaps the toughest schedule overall they've had since 2008, this isn't the last good team they'll play in 2012.
They're only the first.
Obviously the replacement of QB Tim Tebow with QB Peyton Manning stands out the most. While it's easy to look at the game of football in an absolute zero-sum sense, that isn't quite the way it works. The Broncos offense was geared around the strengths it had last year - running the ball, improvising play from its quarterback and calculated deep passing.
Of that, deep passing is likely to be the only carry-over from last year's playoff run. But that area, along with others on their offense, will be even better.
Manning looked sharp in OTAs to this point, as most would expect from a man as driven as Manning is. WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker give Manning an underrated backbone of receivers and as a unit, its offensive line played well enough to establish a formidable run game. Move the yards from the rushing column in 2011 to passing, add more scoring and you've got the Broncos.
It's an outstanding football team, and Denver isn't an easy place in which opposing teams can pull out a win.
The defensive secondary may take something of a hit with the loss of SS Brian Dawkins (retirement). It's generally an underwhelming unit as a whole, particularly with the advancing age of CB Champ Bailey.
The Steelers had an advantage in terms of deep passing in their overtime playoff loss, but a lack of protection up front along with an injured quarterback prevented them from connecting on a few deep throw opportunities they had. Denver will look to protect its secondary with the continued domination of its pass rush. Pittsburgh's newly remodeled offensive line could help prevent that, but assuming Mike Adams and David DeCastro are named the Week 1 starters (not a lock just yet for Adams, nearly a certainty for DeCastro), they'll be making their first NFL starts in a hostile environment.
Steelers CB Ike Taylor had possibly the worst game of his career in the playoff loss, and while it seems strange to say this, it seems more likely he'd have a better chance of success against a better and more traditional quarterback like Manning. Taylor was playing for the interception far too aggressively against the weak-armed Tebow, and the Broncos exploited that for several big plays. They also exploited OLB James Harrison's desire to get up the field, and had Tebow simply escape outside Harrison, who abandoned the edge.
These aren't problems the Steelers can't fix rather easily, particularly when you play a quarterback as good as Manning. Discipline is key, and it's something that will be stressed heavily leading up to the game.
This series will go through each of the Steelers games slated on the 2012 NFL Schedule, and we'll evaluate how they stand post-draft and pre-training camp. We'll revisit this again in August, but for now, we're comparing where each team is compared to where they were last year.