Passing game is key for Broncos, Steelers on Monday night

Here we go, from the frying pan to the fire.

Last week, the undefeated Denver Broncos buzzed into Baltimore and were blitzed, 30-7. The tone was set on the first play from scrimmage when Bronco QB Kyle Orton was sacked for an 8-yard loss by Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson.

The Broncos gained only 200 yards on the day and only 66 on the ground. And although Denver’s defense was impressive for the most part, it did not stack up to Baltimore’s.

The Ravens were physical to the max, stuffing Denver’s running attack and blanketing wide receivers throughout the day. In the first quarter, Denver had 29 yards rushing, 11 of that on an Orton scramble. It got worse. Denver gained 20 yards rushing in the second quarter, 13 in the third and only two in the fourth.

The passing game endured a similar day, with Orton constantly off on his deliveries — most of the time because of the Ravens’ pressure. Orton’s biggest play of the game came in the final quarter, a 23-yard completion to tight end Daniel Graham on the last series of the game when Baltimore was preventing the 24-point touchdown.

Baltimore was the better team on this day.

Can you say d&233;jà vu?

Here come the Pittsburgh Steelers for a Monday Night special.

The defending Super Bowl champions are 5-2, have won four in a row and are coming off a bye week, which certainly allowed their coaches to take expansive notes on Baltimore’s success.

Think the Steelers might try to bring some pressure in Orton’s direction? Think they might blitz occasionally? Think they might do a little bumping at the line of scrimmage on Denver’s receivers?

You betcha to all of the above.

If the Broncos are going to be in this one as the clock winds down, things are going to have to change plenty from the Baltimore fiasco.

Denver has to keep the football away from Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. He is an irritating giant in the pocket, constantly stepping just out of harm’s way and getting the ball downfield.

The Steelers have gone against the grain this year, leaving behind the pounding, plodding offensive attack of the past. They are averaging 383 yards per game, sixth in the league, and 276 of that comes from Roethlisberger’s arm.

If the Broncos can’t keep the Steelers’ offense on the sideline, it will be a long night.

Which begs the question, what has happened to Denver’s wide receivers?

Orton has thrown for an average of 221 yards a game — a middling figure good for 16th in the league. But the wide receivers haven’t been a threat, especially downfield.

Brandon Marshall, the beast, the 100-catch specialist and a Pro Bowl player, has caught 33 passes, on pace for only a 75-catch season. He is also averaging only 10.8 yards per catch. By way of comparison, tight end Graham, a blocking specialist, averages 11.7 yards per catch.

Although Jabar Gaffney, one of those New England refugees, has caught a respectable 21 passes at 13.6 yards per, the other two starting wide receivers, Brandon Stokley and Eddie Royal, have become nonfactors.

Stokley, who was the talk of preseason and by far Orton’s favorite target, has caught only nine passes for 181 yards — one of those being that 87-yarder that beat Cincinnati on opening day.

And Royal, who caught more than 90 passes in his rookie season, has caught only 20 passes for a meager 7.9 yard average — not much more than rushes up the gut garner. Journeyman tailback Correll Buckhalter has virtually duplicated Royal’s efforts in receptions and yardage and is actually averaging more yards per catch than Royal at 8.6.

With this production, it would seemingly make more sense for Denver to load up on fullbacks and blocking tight ends and just ram the ball up the middle.

You and I know that won’t happen.

We also know that coach Josh McDaniels will have been scheming plenty to get his offense on track.

Problem is he will have to do it against a very good Pittsburgh defense, a defense that surely is on par with the Baltimore unit Denver just faced.

Advantage on Monday night certainly goes to the Broncos for being at home. Pittsburgh is only 1-2 on the road, losing at Chicago and at Cincinnati.

Advantage goes to Pittsburgh for having two weeks to prepare and having watched what the Ravens did.

Biggest advantage will go to the team that can throw the ball downfield more effectively.

That, my friends, unless Stokley and Royal come through repeatedly, will be Pittsburgh.

I’ll take my 6-1 record picking with or against Denver and say the Steelers won’t be denied on this Monday night, winning it 27-20.


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