Kovacevic: Broncos' rush will rule the day
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The headline atop the Denver Post's sports section Thursday was tall enough to be mistaken for the nearby mountain range:
"MANNING ON MARQUEE"
The intermission of Cowboys-Giants the previous night on NBC featured a breathless airing of the network's "exclusive one-on-one with Peyton Manning," who earlier that day gave about two dozen of us what I suppose was an "exclusive one-on-24."
Oh, yeah, it's all Peyton.
He was my first topic upon landing here, too.
But I'll predict he won't be the topic come Sunday night, even as I'll also predict that the Broncos will beat the Steelers.
(Ducks for cover.)
Manning will be blowtorching off 19 months of rusted rivets. The Steelers might not knock him out, but they're experienced and still athletic enough on defense to limit his damage.
Who can say the same for the Steelers limiting the damage of Denver's defensive front seven?
Make no mistake: Those are the guys — not Manning, not Tim Tebow before him, not Willis McGahee, not even the great Demaryius Thomas — who make this team go.
And to hear new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio after practice Thursday, it's clear he will let them go.
"You've got to get people to Ben, then you've got to actually get him down," Del Rio said. "It's a challenge. It's not easy."
Not for everyone. But Del Rio brings impeccable defensive credentials from Jacksonville, and he'll be able to script plays for two of the NFL's best edge rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. They combined for 21 sacks in 2011 — 11 1⁄2 for Miller, 9 1⁄2 for Dumervil — and the team had 41, 10th in the league.
But even that doesn't tell the tale: Dumervil was bugged by injuries early last season and had no sacks in the first two months. Miller had a badly sprained thumb that held him to one sack over the final five games and shrunk his presence in the playoff meeting.
In the four games they played together healthy last season, they combined for 10 sacks.
Now both are healthy.
"I'll tell you this: I have a lot of respect for Marcus Gilbert," Miller said of the Steelers' right tackle, "but I'm looking forward to playing this time with more than one arm."
If that sounds cocky ...
"It's really got nothing to do with the Steelers. We know we've got the ability to get in the backfield against anyone. That's what we're excited about."
No reason they shouldn't be.
Look at the Steelers' line. Maurkice Pouncey is a Pro Bowl center, but he's the only one entering the year asterisk-free.
Max Starks, who has Ben's blind side at left tackle, is coming off major knee surgery and won the job primarily because a rookie, Mike Adams, was hurt.
Ramon Foster was backing up another rookie, David DeCastro, until DeCastro was hurt.
Willie Colon was a tackle and is now a guard.
Gilbert has bounced back and forth from left tackle to right.
Nowhere on a football team is cohesion required more than on an offensive line.
Taking it a step further, if fullback Will Johnson isn't on the field, it'll be up to Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer or — gasp — little Chris Rainey to pick up blitzes.
Sorry, I'm having a hard time getting past this.
Preseason doesn't reveal all, but if the Steelers defend Denver's pass rush like the first-team offense did in exhibitions, Ben will be setting bear traps around his pocket by halftime.
Did I mention Derek Wolfe?
He was the Big East's co-Defensive Player of the Year at Cincinnati last year, then Denver's second-round pick. As an interior lineman with the Bearcats last season, he had 9 1⁄2 sacks and an astounding 21 1⁄2 tackles for a loss.
Wolfe was a beast for the Broncos this preseason, too, with 12 tackles and two sacks.
"It's an honor to be part of a group like this," he said, "but I'm not here just to start. I expect greatness of myself. Our whole line expects that."
So do I.
Broncos 27, Steelers 13.