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Starkey: It's on the defense in Denver

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 7:33 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake intercepts a pass intended for Bengals receiver Marvin Jones during the second quarter of the AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9. 2016, in Cincinnati.

Back when the Steelers played consistently dominant defense, I remember Troy Polamalu telling me the week-in, week-out goal of Dick LeBeau's group was simple: Outplay the opposing defense.

In the Steelers locker room Thursday, I wondered if that is still the spoken objective. I had to believe it was, particularly in the days leading up to a playoff game against the Denver Broncos' No. 1-ranked defense.

A couple of Steelers veterans smiled and danced around the question. Antwon Blake did not.

Do players still talk about outplaying the other defense?

“Definitely true,” Blake said. “Any time we step on the field, we want to be the best defense out there.”

Will that be the case in Denver?

“That's the plan, man,” Blake said. “If everybody does what they need to do, that's what's gonna happen.”

It better, because the Steelers' once-prolific offense is limping into the game with several players on the injury list, otherwise known as the Vontaze Burfict List.

How incredible is it that the team's three most dynamic offensive players — Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell — are either compromised or out because of Burfict hits?

This isn't the way it was supposed to be. The Steelers were supposed to fly into the playoffs on Roethlisberger's rifle arm and a string of 30-point games.

The defense, finally getting back to its feet after carrying this franchise through the first decade of the millennium, just needed to be good enough.

In Denver, it's going to have to be great.

Other random musings heading into the game:


Fred Jackson, who coached running backs for 22 years at Michigan, predicted to me that one of his former prized pupils, Fitzgerald Toussaint, would have a good game at Cincinnati.

Jackson coached Tyrone Wheatley, Chris Perry and several other stars. He said Toussaint, who bounced back from a gruesome leg injury at Michigan, reminded him most of ex-Wolverines star Tim Biakabutuka in terms of determination and versatility.

I caught up with Jackson on Friday to tell him he was right. Toussaint had 118 all-purpose yards, including a twisting first-down catch on the winning drive.

“Like I told you, playing a big game wasn't going to be a factor, because he'd been in so many big games,” Jackson said. “It looked like to me like he had his burst. It made me feel good because I know he's capable.”


The last time the Steelers went to Denver for a playoff game, Tim Tebow happened. Ike Taylor, burned for the winning touchdown, figures his Super Bowl rings make up for whatever occurred that day.

“I got a forever pass in Pittsburgh, man,” Taylor said. “Forever. Forever.”


Who's gonna win, Ike?

“I got the Steelers, man, who you think?” he said. “The bully's going to win in the playoffs.”


Blake might miss a bunch of tackles, but people fall hard when he makes one. Consider his monster hit on Tyler Eifert early in the Bengals game.

I asked Blake if he believes those kinds of hits have lasting impact.

“I definitely do,” he said. “I definitely prefer statement tackles rather than just normal tackles. If guys are running around getting banged up, their arms start getting a little short through the middle.”


Speaking of that, what has become of Broncos tight end Vernon Davis? Ever since his arms shrunk by three sizes on that huge drop against the Steelers (please don't hit me, Mike Mitchell!), he has not been targeted one time.

Davis could make up for a lot with a big postseason — he is tied with Dave Casper for most postseason touchdown catches by a tight end (seven) — but I wouldn't count it. Not unless his arms have grown back.


In wrapping up that mind-blowing Bengals debacle, I asked former Steeler Jeff Hartings about the obvious psychological edge in the matchup.

“I can remember going into the playoffs in 2005 feeling like, ‘Man, we got the perfect matchup,' ” Hartings said. “This year, I'm 10 years removed, and I still felt like this was just who we want to play. Mentally, emotionally, I feel like the Steelers have an edge. I think it'd be hard for the Bengals to believe that's not true.”


Strange things happen in Denver this time of year. The Broncos are 15-5 at home in the playoffs. Notable events included The Tebow Game, The Fumble (sorry, Ernest Byner), Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie running all over the favored Broncos in 1984, John Elway's legendary drive against the Houston Oilers in 1992 and Joe Flacco's miracle pass.

Something surreal will happen Sunday.

Count on it.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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