For a couple of teams who've won all but three of their 14 combined games, the Steelers and Broncos are lugging around plenty of issues, richly evident weaknesses that could send a promising football season careening into a u-turn tomorrow night in the Rockies.
The 5-2 Steelers have a 334-yard passing performance by Brett Favre still fresh in the collective memory of their secondary, which from all indications will be without steadying safety Ryan Clark at the back of a defense thinning faster than the mile high air. Pittsburgh had the ball for only 23:02 against Minnesota, and its two sub-30 minute possession performances have come in the past three games.
The 6-1 Broncos have a decorated defense, ranked first in the entire league near the season's midpoint, but that unit has forced only two turnovers in the past three games, none in a 30-7 loss at Baltimore only last Sunday. Offensively, they don't seem capable of connecting with the deep ball. In three of Denver's games, Kyle Orton failed to complete a pass of even 28 yards, and his longest completion this season came on the infamous 87-yard tip in the opener at Cincinnati.
For all that, nothing is as ominous in the respective soul searches of these long-time AFC rivals as the dangerous ways in which they run under punts and kickoffs, especially kickoffs. The Broncos rank 29th in punt coverage, 27th in kickoff coverage. The Steelers are a quite decent 10th at covering punts, but 23rd on kickoffs. The Steelers have allowed touchdowns on kickoff returns in each of their past two games, and the Broncos have allowed touchdowns on a kickoff and punt in their past two.
"The funny thing about kickoff coverage," Steelers special-teams ace Keyaron Fox was saying as preparations were being completed, "is that there can be just one guy out of place and everything breaks down. Most times when it breaks down, that's the reason, but, sometimes, it's just hustle and focus. Guys are filling lanes, and some of those guys are expecting help. If you don't get there to help, somebody's gonna break one."
Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs broke one for 98 yards at Heinz Field Oct. 18, Minnesota's Percy Harvin another for 88 a week later.
"Cribbs, I don't think anyone even touched him," Fox said. "They made a nice little alley for him, and three of our guys got tied up on one block."
Stefan Logan, who returns kicks for Mike Tomlin's team and is so fast the coaches can't resist using him to cover them as well, pleaded guilty on the Cribbs matter.
"I'm the L-2 [the second from the left in the kickoff formation], so I mostly have contain, but I'm free to chase if I'm hot, which means I'm not engaged. On the Cribbs one, I messed up. I went inside, and somebody on the Browns had tripped somebody else, and there was just a cluster of guys there."
The Steelers can't afford any clustering tomorrow night, lest they expose themselves to the vapor trail that is Denver's Eddie Royal, who took a kickoff back 93 yards and a punt back 71 in the same game at San Diego. Only 10 times in NFL history had something like that happened. Royal, the accomplished second-year wideout out of Virginia Tech, put his name next to the likes of Gale Sayers, Bobby Mitchell, Travis Williams and Devin Hester with that effort.
Fortunately for the Steelers, their special teams fervently anticipate the return of Andre Frazier, who leads the team in unassisted special teams tackles but has been idled by injury in the past two games, with disastrous results.
"I'm ready," Frazier said at the weekend. "We've just got to be a little more careful out there on the kickoff coverage. I don't think it's that we're overrunning things. When I look at those returns [Cribbs' and Harvin's], it just looked like we weren't getting off the blocks quickly enough. Sometimes, guys don't shed [the blocks] properly or shed to the wrong gap.
"With the returners in the NFL now, they're so fast, so explosive, all it takes is a little crease, and they're gone."
It wouldn't surprise anyone if Steelers special-teams coaches Bob Ligashesky and Amos Jones shuffle the deck on coverage teams. I'm not sure they'd recall James Harrison to those duties, but Harrison still takes some reps in practice.
Might be worth it just for the fear factor.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .