Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)
Hey Peyton Manning, welcome back to the NFL. Here on your left we have Mr. Woodley and on your right we have Mr. Harrison and what’s that hairy thing in the distance, why it’s Troy Polamalu. In all seriousness, Peyton Manning could not have asked for a tougher week 1 test. The Steelers were the league’s best scoring defense last year (14.2 points per game) and they did that despite a league low 15 turnovers. Since 2002, 38 teams have had 20 or fewer takeaways in a season. Those teams had, on average, 7.53 more takeaways and won 1.41 more games the following season.
They also had several key injuries on defense last year. Both outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley missed time, which forced Jason Worilds to step into the starting lineup and Lawrence Timmons to move from inside linebacker to outside linebacker. Worilds did fine, though he certainly wasn’t as good as Woodley or Harrison would have been, but Timmons was awful. Clearly not a natural pass rusher, he had just 2 quarterback hits and 1 quarterback pressure on 114 pass rush snaps in 4 starts, a pathetic 2.6% rate.
Timmons was ProFootballFocus’ highest rated middle linebacker in 2010, so him being inside for all 16 games will definitely help their defense. The only real losses they had defensively were to marginal starting cornerback William Gay, washed up middle linebacker James Farrior, and injured defensive lineman Aaron Smith. If you can believe it, the Steelers’ defense might actually be better this season than last and even if it isn’t, they look poised for their SEVENTH top-3 scoring defense since 2004.
Things aren’t quite as good on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers hopes for an improved offensive line took a huge blow when rookie David DeCastro tore his MCL and when fellow rookie Mike Adams struggled in the preseason and lost his starting job to incumbent Max Starks. Willie Colon represents an upgrade at left guard as long as he’s healthy (the former right tackle has played in 1 game in the last 2 seasons), but other than that, this is the same offensive line that surrendered 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures to the Broncos in the playoffs last year. Doom and Gloom will give them trouble. The good news is that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t dealing with the lower leg problems he was dealing with last year, which will allow him to evade more sacks and probably help him improve upon a 22 for 40 for 289 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception performance.
The 2nd offensive issue has to do with Mike Wallace’s holdout. Wallace missed most of the offseason with a new coaching staff coming in which is never a good thing. Even if he didn’t get out of shape like Chris Johnson did last year, missing all that practice time will hurt him. Luckily, Antonio Brown was here all offseason and Wallace is still fast enough to be a pretty damn effective deep decoy, freeing Brown up to work one-on-one with a defensive back, which is a tough cover for the defender. Remember, Brown had 677 receiving yards to Wallace’s 393 in their last 8 games last year.
The final offensive issue is at running back. Rashard Mendenhall may or may not play just over 8 months removed from a torn ACL, but if he does play, he won’t be effective. Maybe Adrian Peterson can come back from a torn ACL that quickly and be fine, but Mendenhall won’t be his normal self. They’d be smart to hold him out of this one, especially since they themselves first predicted he’d miss the first 6 weeks of the season and then the first 3. Isaac Redman was supposed to be his replacement, but he’s dealing with groin and hip problems that made him look pretty slow in the preseason. He’ll probably get the start, but Jonathan Dwyer, who is finally in shape and had a great preseason, might be their best option on early downs, even though he only has 22 career carries.
The Steelers should be still able to put points on the board because Denver’s defense isn’t very good. People like to say this is an 8 win team adding a future Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s true on the surface, but when you look deeper, this team played as well as a 5 or 6 win team last year, when you look at their point differential and their Pythagorean Expectation. They won a lot of close games and whether you believe that was luck or some kind of divine Tebow magic, it probably won’t happen again this year. They had the league’s 24th ranked scoring defense and 25th ranked scoring offense.
The pass rush for the Broncos is strong with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, but if Ben Roethlisberger can evade the pass rush like he normally does, he should be able to shred up a pretty poor back 7. Champ Bailey is the only above average back 7 player (not counting Miller because he rarely drops into coverage) and he’s heading into his age 34 season so he’s no sure thing anymore. Peyton Manning will make the offense better, but there won’t be a ton he can do about the defense. The Broncos ranked 18th in points per play allowed last year, so even if they’re on the field less with the offense moving better, they’ll still surrender yards and points.
There’s also the question of how much better Peyton Manning will make the offense. He’ll definitely be an upgrade over Tim Tebow. Even the biggest Tebow fan has to admit that. However, there are a lot of reasons to believe he won’t be his normal self, especially early in the season. He’s 36 years old. His neck has been operated on 4 times in the last 2 years. He hasn’t played NFL football that counts in almost 2 years. He is going to be forced to adjust to a new city, a new team, new teammates, and a completely new playbook for the first time in his career.
He no longer will be able to play half of his games in a dome, but rather he’ll have to play half of his games at high elevations. In 2008, when he missed Training Camp and the Preseason, he completed just 62.2% of his passes, averaged 6.8 YPA, and threw 12 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in his first 8 games, as his team went 4-4.
He was also beginning to noticeably decline in 2010, with his lowest QB rating since 2002 (91.9), his lowest completion percentage since 2007 (66.3%), for his YPA since his rookie year in 1998 (6.9), his worst TD:INT ratio since 2002 (33:17), and his worst win-loss record since 2001 (10-6). He displayed weaker arm strength, both noticeably, and as evidenced by his 6.9 YPA and his 36.8% accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) on balls that go 20+ yards through the air, 26th out of 37 eligible quarterbacks. For reference, that statistic stood at 42.4% in 2009 and 43.6% in 2010. And that was 4 neck surgeries and 2 years ago with a much more familiar supporting cast.
He’s also not working with the best supporting cast. They were the league’s best running team last year, but that will change without Tim Tebow. Willis McGahee is now heading into his age 31 season and could be getting close to being done, especially without Tebow opening things up on the ground for him, and they don’t have a true #2 back.
Receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas have plenty of promise, but they’re also inexperienced. He should be able to get the most out of them, especially Decker, but it’s not like he’s throwing to Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark or even Pierre Garcon. At best, Decker is comparable to Austin Collie (his #3 receiver in 2010) and he’ll probably lead this team in receiving. There’s also the issue of their 31st ranked offensive line in terms of pass blocking efficiency. Peyton Manning will make them look better than they are as they go from protecting the blindside of the quarterback who holds the ball the longest to the one with one of the quickest releases. However, it’s still not a great offensive line.
I really think the Broncos are being overrated, especially early in the season, because it’s “Peyton Manning joining a 8 win team,” when in reality, this wasn’t exactly an 8 win team and Peyton Manning won’t exactly be Peyton Manning, especially early. Meanwhile, the Steelers figure to be one of the best teams in the league again this year and provide a very tough test defensively for Peyton Manning. Manning’s early schedule is brutal (vs. Pittsburgh, @ Atlanta, vs. Houston, vs. Oakland, @ New England) and I look forward to betting against him often early in the year, as I will here, taking the Steelers in a minor “upset.” I also like getting Ben Roethlisberger as an underdog, as he’s 15-10 ATS in that situation in his career. Rather than putting 3 units on the spread and 1 on the money line, I’m putting 4 on the money line because 1 point games are rare. It’s not worth the extra -20 juice to get the +1.5.
Update: James Harrison will surprisingly miss this game. This doesn’t change my pick though. The Steelers still have a loaded defense and Jason Worilds played pretty well in his absence last season.
Pittsburgh Steelers 27 Denver Broncos 17 Upset Pick +110 (4 units)
Pick against spread: Pittsburgh +1.5 (-110) 0 units