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Kovacevic: Broncos brace for ... Wallace?

| Friday, Jan. 6, 2012

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Pity the poor security guy who spent his Thursday patrolling the perimeter of the Denver Broncos' practice field, whispering into his walkie-talkie and peering from behind Secret Service-like sunglasses at anyone suspicious.

Guess a 6-foot stone wall and rows of tall pines aren't enough to fend off the Bill Belichicks of the world.

Well, just to tick everyone off, then, here's what I spied with my X-ray vision from the Broncos' afternoon session, then texted back to the Steelers' coaches scheming for Sunday's wild-card game: WOW, THESE GUYS SURE DO THROW A LOT OF INCOMPLETE PASSES.

Hope that helps, men.

If not, I also uncovered this stunning facet of the Broncos' defensive game plan: They're worried about Mike Wallace.

No, seriously.

If you ever want a great gauge for the Steelers' strengths, read or listen carefully for the names cited most often by the opponent in the buildup to any game. It's usually not hard. Even when they're asked general questions, they'll come back with specific names. The first name mentioned is usually the jackpot.

So, I went about a whole lot of that Thursday and decoded the following:

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, when I asked about the Steelers' offense: "Probably the biggest thing is the receivers. They're really, really fast. Enough speed to get over the top, especially with Mike Wallace."

Ten-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey: "Their receivers aren't the best at everything they do, but that speed ... that's tough on corners. Mike Wallace, if you watch on tape, you can see how stretches a defense. You've got to have one guy on top, one under him. And most of the time, he's running right past both ."

Free safety Rahim Moore: "I know about Ben Roethlisberger. I know what Antonio Brown's done. But when I think of getting ready for the Steelers, I'm thinking about Mike Wallace. He's the fastest man I've ever seen in my life. Maybe him and Usain Bolt."

Maybe the Steelers' coaches will pick up on that anew.

Wallace has been frustrated on and off the field, and rightly so. He had 43 catches and 800 yards through the season's first half but just 29 catches and 393 yards in the second. He was held to five or fewer catches in each of the final eight games, including just an 11-yarder Sunday in Cleveland.

Pin some of this on the double-coverage. Wallace rarely breaks off the line without plenty of company, and from what Bailey said yesterday, he won't on Sunday, either. Pin some on the emergence of Brown, too. He's caught passes short and long.

But there's no way to justify Wallace barely touching the ball.

How about a quick screen?

They don't work anymore for Hines Ward, the usual recipient, but I'll take Wallace's chances of beating the first blue shirt he sees.

How about a reverse?

Wallace has been credited with five rushes all season. That's thoroughly inexplicable, especially given Roethlisberger's limitations of late.

Better yet, how about just taking some shots downfield?

Yes, I realize Roethlisberger has been erratic. The high-ankle sprain has kept him from planting properly, and his ugliest throws have been his longest. But the Steelers' offense is built on big plays, and that simply must come back into play soon.

The conditions should be fine. The weather in Denver yesterday was positively summer-like — 67 degrees under a cloudless sky — and Sunday isn't forecast to be much different.

Moreover, the Broncos' defense is more prone than most might think: The overall pass defense ranked 18th, the 7.5 yards per attempt ranked 20th, and they failed to produce a takeaway in the final three games while giving up 88 points. Their corners are deployed in relentless press coverage, but New England's Tom Brady carved them all up for 320 yards, and even Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 196 while somehow not adding to his 23 interceptions.

There's a reason Bailey last week called out his defensive mates as "mediocre," even if he backpedaled a bit Thursday.

"I didn't say we were mediocre. I said we played mediocre," Bailey said. "That's not going to do it. When you're going against a team like the Steelers, there's no room for error, no room for those big plays. We've got to keep Wallace and those guys in front of us."

It's not exactly a secret.

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