Commentary

Steelers' no-huddle looms large

Broncos should expect Pittsburgh to follow Baltimore's offensive blueprint

Originally Published: November 5, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Did the Ravens provide the blueprint for stopping the red-hot Denver Broncos during their 30-7 victory in Week 8?

It's possible. Ravens coaches threw their collective minds at film of the Broncos' first six games and came up with a solid game plan. Because Broncos QB Kyle Orton doesn't have a strong arm, the Ravens focused on keeping Denver's receivers in front of them and limiting their yards-after-catch ability. That worked.

The Ravens' no-huddle, two-minute-style offense also was a factor. Joe Flacco kept the Broncos' defense off balance and minimized the adjustments and substitutions available to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That led to 17 second-half points and the ability to control the action.

Now, as the Steelers prepare for a visit to Denver for a "Monday Night Football" game, we'll see whether the Ravens' plan can work again or whether the Broncos' coaches can adjust their way out of the difficulties created in Baltimore. There is no question the Steelers will try to use the no-huddle offense to throw the Broncos' defense off stride. Ben Roethlisberger loves the no-huddle. He'll go to it at any point in a game to spark Pittsburgh's offense if it isn't moving the ball.

This game is huge for several reasons. If the Broncos win, they'll maintain a nice lead in the AFC West and set themselves up to get a No. 2 seed in the playoffs. They've already beaten the Bengals, Patriots and Chargers, giving Denver a potential tie-breaking advantage. One bad week doesn't erase what the Broncos have accomplished. Even in the 23-point loss to the Ravens, the surprising Broncos' defense kept rallying and making tackles behind the Ravens' line of scrimmage.

The Steelers have concerns on defense because of injuries. They are down two defensive ends -- Aaron Smith for the season and Travis Kirschke for three weeks with a torn calf. Safety Ryan Clark is expected to sit out of the game because of a sickle-cell problem that caused him to become extremely ill the last time Clark played in the thin air of Denver.

The key to the game, though, is Roethlisberger, whose presence and domination on the field grows by the week. He has turned the Steelers from a running team into a passing team. His completion numbers in the fourth quarter and in play-action situations are off the charts.

And the Steelers know they can't lose many games because the Ravens and Bengals are threatening to take the AFC North title away from them.

Keep an eye on Orton. Early in the week, it was revealed his ankle was sore. It's not a bad injury, just a minor tweak. But a sore ankle last season when he was in Chicago limited his mobility and negatively affected his throws in the final weeks of the season.

Now on to the rest of this week's First and 10.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/LM OteroTony Romo has a hot hand in recent weeks, and the Cowboys are surging in the NFC East.

1. Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: Wade Phillips said the Cowboys aren't looking for revenge against an Eagles team that blew them out, 44-6, in their Dec. 28 meeting last year. That's probably a pretty good idea. The Cowboys don't need to look to the past. This is a new era, the post-Terrell Owens era. Phillips and Tony Romo have to navigate Dallas' offense through some storms involving wide receiver Roy Williams, who isn't accepting the reality that his inconsistency is the reason he has fallen behind Miles Austin, Jason Witten and others as a reliable receiving option for Romo. The Cowboys can't think about selfishness. They are starting to play some of their best ball, but so are the Eagles, who blew out the Giants 40-17 in Week 8. This is the battle for first place in the NFC East, although this race will likely go well into late December.

2. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: As good as the Ravens have been for the past decade, the Bengals have had their number. The Bengals sneaked into Baltimore in Week 5 and came away with a last-second victory, 17-14. They've won four of the past six games in the series against the Ravens.

The Ravens will play an angry style of football, but they must be cautious. Three defensive penalties in the Bengals' final drive helped Carson Palmer beat Baltimore the first meeting. Ravens coaches hope they have resolved some coverage problems in their secondary. The pressure is all on the Ravens to get this victory.

3. Arizona Cardinals at Chicago Bears: These are strange times for the Bears. Coach Lovie Smith, who decided to call the defensive plays, is being criticized by management and fans for not making great adjustments during games. The defensive line is also getting criticism. The offensive line continues to struggle, and halfback Matt Forte needs a breakout game.

In come Kurt Warner and the Cardinals, who are 3-0 on the road for the first time since 1982. Arizona's problem recently has been getting the ball downfield in passing situations. Anquan Boldin basically can't run because of a high ankle sprain, and teams are doubling Larry Fitzgerald. If Smith doesn't make the right adjustments against Warner and the Cardinals, he might start finding himself on the hot seat, which would be unfair, given what he has done for the Bears.

4. Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: Because the Texans have never been 5-3, this is their game of hope. Too bad they enter Lucas Oil Stadium with two big problems. The loss of tight end Owen Daniels for the season takes an important weapon away from quarterback Matt Schaub. Second, there is a running back controversy after Steve Slaton was benched and Ryan Moats rushed for 126 yards in Week 8. Can the Texans win with Moats as the starting running back and Joel Dreessen as their best pass-catching tight end? The Colts are 13-1 against the Texans, and Peyton Manning is having one of his best seasons.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanOff the mark in recent weeks, Eli Manning will try snap the Giants' three-game losing streak.
5. San Diego Chargers at New York Giants: Both teams were supposed to be atop their divisions. Both have defenses that have fallen apart. The Chargers rebounded on defense with solid efforts against the sorry offenses of Kansas City and Oakland. The Giants are going backward quickly. They've surrendered 115 points in the past three games. After being the top-ranked defense after Week 7, the Giants haven't had answers for teams that want to run up the middle or throw downfield against them.

The other interesting subplot of this game is the matchup of Eli Manning, who didn't want to be a Charger, and Philip Rivers, who is having a great season as the Chargers' quarterback. Manning has struggled over the past couple of weeks with interceptions and inconsistent throwing.

6. Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: Using the Wildcat, the Dolphins tricked their way to a victory over the Patriots in Week 3 in 2008. The Patriots fixed the problem for the next meeting just as the Jets solved the Wildcat in Week 8 this season after being caught off balance in Week 5 against Miami. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a lot on the line in this one. A win opens a two-game lead in the AFC East and puts the Patriots in a position to run away with the division. A Dolphins win keeps them in contention.

7. Tennessee Titans at San Francisco 49ers: This game is much more interesting with the Titans' Vince Young facing the 49ers' Alex Smith as opposed to Kerry Collins matching up against Shaun Hill. Smith was the top pick in the 2005 draft, and Young was the third pick the next year. Both started 2009 on the bench only to come back in Week 8 to try to resurrect their careers. Young looked the better of the two, completing 15 of 18 passes and doing a great job of getting the ball to receivers in checkdown situations in a win against Jacksonville. Smith played well against the Colts (19-for-32, 198 yards), but not well enough to win. The 49ers must compensate for injuries to left tackle Joe Staley and cornerback Nate Clements, both of whom are out for at least six weeks, according to the team. Staley's injury is the more worrisome of the two. Losing his best pass-blocker could force Smith to scramble to make plays.

8. Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, aka "Matty Ice," is starting to thaw a bit. He has completed 51.8 percent of his passes and thrown seven interceptions in his past three games, the last two being losses. Say what you want about the Redskins, but they do have a decent defense. Their problem is scoring. The matchup still favors the Falcons because even if they struggle, Ryan has the ability to mount a last-minute drive to win the game.

9. Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike McCarthy hopes the returns of left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Mark Tauscher stabilizes a porous offensive line that has allowed Aaron Rodgers to be sacked 31 times. Finger-pointing on offense is starting to occur because of the bad pass protection. A game against the 0-7 Bucs should cure a lot of their problems.

10. Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: Before the season, this might have been a marquee game. The Panthers won 12 games last season, and most knew before the season that the Saints would be good with Drew Brees and an easy schedule. The Panthers must hope the Saints have a letdown after their high-energy victory over the Falcons on Monday night. The Panthers caught the Cardinals flat in Week 8, a week after Arizona upset the Giants on the road. The Saints' next three opponents (Panthers, Rams, Bucs) are a combined 4-18. New Orleans' next huge game will be a Nov. 30 on "Monday Night Football" against New England.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer