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The Boston Globe

Sports

AFC wild card preview

Steelers-Broncos likely to be defensive struggle

Ben Roethlisberger

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger will carry an injured ankle into Sunday’s playoff game.

The Steelers travel to play the Broncos on Sunday in an AFC wild-card game. The Boston Globe looks at the matchups:

When: Sunday, 4:30 p.m.

Continue reading below

Where: Denver

TV, radio: Ch. 4, WEEI

Steelers on offense: Big Ben Roethlisberger and his balky ankle hobble into Mile High having won six of their last seven. But this offense could struggle. Not only is Roethlisberger hobbled, but running back Rashard Mendenhall will sit out the playoffs with a knee injury. Roethlisberger is a playmaker. He has tremendous field awareness and escapability (when healthy) and is an accurate passer. He may not always look graceful, but the 6-foot-5-inch, 241-pound Roethlisberger is very effective. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown have emerged as the Steelers’ best receivers. Wallace has elite speed and decent hands. Brown has good speed and is elusive after the catch. Hines Ward must be respected, no matter how dirty he plays. Watch out for tight end Heath Miller on third down. Isaac Redman (solid, not spectacular) will fill Mendenhall’s shoes.

Broncos on defense: The pass-rushing duo of Elvis Dumervil and rookie Von Miller (both have tremendous burst) will hound Roethlisberger all day. Athletic linebackers Wesley Woodward and D.J. Williams are always around the ball.

Broncos on offense: Tim Tebow Mania has quieted considerably recently - a three-game losing streak will do that. Tebow has great intangibles (leadership and toughness) but facts are facts, and it’s a fact that Tebow still struggles as a passer. Teams are pressuring and punishing Tebow and he has yet to adjust. Eric Decker (possession receiver lacks speed) and Demaryius Thomas (great speed but gets lost in this offense) are solid players, but Tebow has yet to prove he can get them the ball on a consistent basis. Tailback Willis McGahee has fabulous moves. The veteran tailback is running with youthful exuberance, hitting holes with authority and breaking tackles like Earl Campbell. This offense would be dead without him.

Steelers on defense: This unit is loaded with playmakers. Safety Troy Polamalu sets the tone with his reckless, take-no-prisoners style. A rangy player with speed and flowing locks, Polamalu has a nose for the ball and penchant for delivering devastating hits. The linebackers, from mean and nasty James Harrison to the steady and classy James Farrior, are exceptional.

Special teams: Brown is a very good return man. If he gets past the first wave, it’s good night, Irene. He has a 27.3-yard average (with a long of 52) on 27 kick returns. He also has a 10.8-yard average (with a long of 60) on 30 punt returns . . . Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham has hit on 23 of 31 FGs and all 31 of his PATs. He will struggle with inconsistency . . . Steelers punter Jeremy Kapinos is averaging 45.0 yards on 34 boots . . . Quan Cosby (Was he Theo Huxtable?) handles the Broncos returns. He averages 26.9 on kickoffs and 10.0 on punts . . . Denver’s Matt Prater is 19 of 25 on FGs and hasn’t missed a PAT in 30 chances . . . Britton Colquitt loves the thin air - he is averaging 47.4 yards on 101 punts.

Miscellany: These franchises have met six times in the playoffs, with each team winning three times. The winner has reached the Super Bowl in five of the six years . . . Steelers led the NFL in total defense (271.8 yards) and passing defense (171.9). Leading tackler Ryan Clark will not play because of sickle cell trait, which can be aggravated in high altitude.

JIM McBRIDE
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