For Steelers, Denver might bring with it more good memories than bad
STEELERS at BRONCOS 8:15 p.m.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers will return to Denver tonight, where they previously experienced a mile high and then some.
Twenty-one months earlier, they used the Broncos to catapult into the Super Bowl, winning the sixth AFC championship game in their history on the way to their fifth Super Bowl title.
It was their biggest win in a long line of memorable games through the years in Denver.
"We had a great game plan," said Hines Ward, who disrupted what looked like an early interception by Denver cornerback Champ Bailey that could have turned the game the other way.
"We executed better than they did. Our defense played solid and gave us great field position. I think every time we had the ball, we went down and put up points."
The Steelers jumped out to a quick lead and never looked back, running up a 24-3 halftime advantage in a 34-17 victory. Ward said they need to do more of the same in tonight's 8:15 kickoff against a team that does not look much like the one they beat for that AFC championship, including a new quarterback and plenty of different faces on defense.
"Playing on the road, we have to take the crowd out of it and make some plays. One thing about us, we have to score when we get in the red zone -- we want touchdowns, not field goals."
The Steelers have done plenty of early scoring this season, outpacing opponents, 57-6, in the first halves on the way to a 4-1 record. Denver has scored often in the first half as well with 46 points, but the Broncos have allowed 61 in the first halves en route to a 2-3 record, including losses in their past three games.
The AFC title game also was the most memorable for a backup linebacker, whose play that day helped convince the Steelers to make a change at right defensive end. Within two months, they allowed Kimo von Oelhoffen to sign with the Jets as a free agent and they signed his backup, Brett Keisel, to a long-term deal.
"I think that game was the deciding factor,'' Keisel said this week.
Keisel had two sacks, four tackles and a forced fumble against the Broncos that day.
"That was probably my best game, especially being a backup player at the time, being able to get a couple of sacks in that game. That's home for me. It was incredible and something I'll never get."
It was the most recent of memorable Steelers games in Denver that began when the teams played to the first overtime tie in NFL history, 35-35, in 1974. Joe Gilliam was the Steelers' starting quarterback that day and, calling his own plays, passed so often against his coaches' wishes that it prompted Chuck Noll to go back to Terry Bradshaw and onto their first Super Bowl victory.
In 1977, the Broncos ended the Steelers' try for an unprecedented third Super Bowl victory with a playoff win in Denver. The Steelers' frustration in that loss was depicted graphically when Joe Greene punched Denver guard Paul Howard in the stomach because he was continuously holding him.
The Steelers, however, returned the favor in 1984 when, as big underdogs, they upset the Broncos and quarterback John Elway, 24-17, to advance to the AFC championship game in Miami.
"There have been two victories in my life where I was so overwhelmed that I was really emotionally played out, and that was one of them," said Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin, then a starting tackle.
The Steelers had eked into the playoffs that season at 9-7.
"Denver was 13-3 and had a great defense," Ilkin said, "and fans were chanting 'Bring on the Dolphins.' The place was going crazy. The place was so loud, you could actually feel the entire stadium vibrate."
Ilkin and the Steelers enjoyed the dead silence at the end.
Again in 1989, Noll brought his last playoff team to Denver. The Steelers again squeaked in with a 9-7 record and had upset the Oilers in Houston in overtime. Denver was 11-5 and had a bye the previous week.
The Steelers stunned the Broncos by taking an early 10-0 lead and led, 23-17, in the fourth quarter as Merril Hoge gouged Denver's defense for 120 yards on 16 carries.
"Merril had an unbelievable game," said Ilkin, who was still playing right tackle. "Their safety, Dennis Smith, was yelling 'We have to stop Hoag; Hoag is killing us.' I yelled back, it's Hawdj, you idiot."
But Elway, as he did to many others, broke their hearts by engineering a 71-yard touchdown drive with 2:22 left and a 24-23 victory.
"We took control of that game from the outset, we were just pounding them,'' Ilkin said. "Then it was like, all of a sudden, we lost. It was an Elway thing."
Elway still lives in Denver, but the Broncos have a new, young quarterback. It's no longer Jake "The Snake" Plummer, their quarterback in the AFC title game in the 2005 season and the one who beat the Steelers in Heinz Field last November, 31-20.
Jay Cutler is a second-year quarterback who will hand off to a new halfback, Travis Henry. Gone are the many former Cleveland Browns defensive linemen who last played against the Steelers, too.
Also, this ranks among the few times the Steelers actually play in Denver as favorites. They should understand by their own history there that being a favorite in Denver in this series means little.
"I know a lot of people make a big deal out of this team being no good,'' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
"Actually, they're pretty doggone good. Just because they're giving up a lot of rushing yards doesn't mean they're not a good defense. They've got a lot of big-name guys, especially in the secondary, who are going to get after it.
"We're going to need our best game to be able to go out there and be productive."