Two long-standing AFC rivals will crack heads Sunday night in their respective season openers. Memories are still fresh from Denver's 29-23 (OT) win over Pittsburgh in the AFC Wild Card playoffs last year, but these teams have both changed quite a bit from last year to now.
When the Steelers have the ball:
Look for heavy doses of RBs Issac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, probably aimed at rookie DE Derek Wolfe. The Steelers ran well on the Broncos in the playoffs last season, riding Redman to 156 team rushing yards (121 from Redman), and that was without C Maurkice Pouncey and LT Max Starks (a knee injury forced him out of action). The Steelers return Willie Colon to the lineup, joining Pouncey as two of the game's better blockers. Colon's move to guard should improve the Steelers' rushing attack, which sagged last season from a top 10 level to the middle of the pack.
Not that the Steelers will - or should - ignore the pass. The combination of WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown is among the toughest to defend in the NFL, particularly when QB Ben Roethlisberger goes off-schedule - something he likes to do. The Broncos secondary will struggle to contain both of them all game, and at least one big play from one of the Steelers' talented receivers is likely to happen. The main deterrent to that the Broncos will have is their powerful pass rush. It's likely the Broncos will, at times, trade coverage for pressure, and try to disrupt Roethlisberger, much like they did over the second half of the playoff game.
The key to the Steelers' offense will be its ability to establish the run, and with that, unlock play action passing. Look for a lot of screens and passes to the flat to help bolster the running game. They will look to strike deep at some point, and the success of that will be predicated on their ability to suck in Broncos safeties Rahim Moore and Mike Adams.
When the Broncos have the ball:
Denver went out and added QB Peyton Manning for a reason. Their offense will be much more versatile than it was under noodle-armed Tim Tebow, but the Broncos will surrender the dominant running attack they had with the strong-running Tebow. Manning has never been shy of aggressively attacking down field, and with the Steelers starting FS Ryan Mundy in place of Ryan Clark - who will miss the game due to a blood disorder that is aggravated by high altitudes - expect Manning to test the Steelers vertically.
He'll likely test both of the Steelers' starting cornerbacks, Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis. Taylor was largely responsible for WR Demaryius Thomas's monster performance in the playoffs last year (four catches, 204 yards and the game-winning touchdown in overtime). It would be wise of the Broncos to test Taylor early, looking to see if he's recovered mentally from his self-admitted "worst game as a pro." Lewis is making his second career start.
One intriguing match-up will be ROLB Chris Carter vs. LT Ryan Clady. Carter, likely starting in place of James Harrison (knee), is giving up approximately five inches and 65 pounds to Clady. Harrison has made a career out of using his (lack of) height to his advantage, and the strength he has in his lower body as well as his flexibility helps him do that. Carter, who will be making his first career start, hasn't developed those attributes yet, but does have a relentless motor, and quick first step. If the Broncos run the ball - and they will, even with Manning under center - they'll likely aim for Carter on several plays.
Steelers Special Teams:
K Shaun Suisham was hot and cold last season, and after beating out rookie Danny Hrapmann for kicking duties, he looks to improve on a 23-for-31 (74.2 percent) mark from 2011. The thin air at Mile High may help his distance, but Suisham didn't miss kicks short last year.
Rookie Drew Butler will punt in his first regular season game, after beating out incumbent Jason Kapinos in the preseason.
Rookie Chris Rainey will handle both punt and kick returns, and despite receiving notice via Mike Tomlin's Tuesday press conference that Antonio Brown (punts) and Emmanuel Sanders (kicks) stand right behind him in the event of failure, Rainey showed flashes of outstanding ability in the preseason.
Broncos Special Teams:
K Matt Prater is best known for his late-game heroics, but was 19-for-25 last season overall. He has a tremendous leg, and particularly at home, the Broncos will trust him with 60+ yard field goal attempts.
P Britton Colquitt was 8th in the NFL with a 40.1 net average last season, and was second with 33 punts inside the 20.
RB Lance Ball is listed as the punt returner, taking over this year from Quan Cosby and Eddie Royal. WR Eric Decker will return kicks, after having run a punt back 90 yards for a touchdown in 2011.