ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Players and coaches on both sides of Sunday night's opener have acknowledged that each team is different from last year's AFC Wild Card Game. But for the Steelers, some things never change.
Pittsburgh is a perennial defensive force.
Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau started his second stint with the Steelers in 2004. In the eight years since, Pittsburgh has ranked first in the NFL in total defense four times. Only one of those years have the Steelers not finished as a top-five defense – that was in 2006, when they ranked ninth. Going back further into Pittsburgh's history would turn up similar numbers.
"Some things don't change," Manning said. "You know that Pittsburgh is going to have an excellent defense. They're extremely well-coached, they play well together and they have excellent players so that's a pretty lethal combination. We'll certainly have our hands full."
LeBeau uses complex blitzing schemes, sending defenders at the quarterback from all different angles, to add stress to the offense. The defense will disguise its coverage, as well.
"They cause a lot of confusion and a lot of problems with the 3-4 (defense)," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "You have to account for those guys and know where they are at all times because if you don't, next thing you know you have a turnover. Their scheme is very good and the players that they have doing it are very good."
On the other side of the ball, the Denver defense will be facing another challenge that's been a constant on the Steelers for the last eight years. This one is 6-foot-5, weighs more than 240 pounds, and is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger holds numerous franchise records for the Steelers, including passer rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt, completions, most 300-yard passing games and most 3,000-yard passing seasons. And though he's shown impressive mobility for a man of his size, the toughest chore in defending Roethlisberger isn't getting to him. It's getting him to the ground.
"He's a hard guy to get down," Head Coach John Fox said of Roethlisberger. "He extends plays, he's got a very strong arm and he's a Pro Bowl player. Those guys always present problems and we're not expecting anything but his best this time around."
For rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, Roethlisberger will be the biggest quarterback he's ever gone up against.
"I've gone against guys that height, but never 240, 250 pounds," Wolfe said. "That just means you've got to make sure you get him to the ground. You can't just swing him down like you can other guys; you're going to have to really get him and get your arms around him. He's the type of guy (who) makes those second-effort plays."
Linebacker Joe Mays added that it's important to get multiple players to the quarterback so that he's not able to break free and get outside the pocket. Once that happens, it creates a problem for the secondary.
"The biggest thing is extending plays," safety Jim Leonhard said. "It's that initial route, especially as a (defensive back), you cover it, but then he breaks pocket and moves around a little bit and (you have to) cover for four, five, six, seven seconds -- especially with the speed that they have at wide receiver."
Even with such a proficient quarterback at the helm, the Steelers offense – similar to the defense – has always maintained the same identity.
"They like to pound the ball, no doubt about it," Mays said. "They're definitely going to try to stick with their M.O. and right now we're watching film and trying to get ourselves right so we can be good this weekend."
That's the type of offensive attack that all of the Broncos defenders are expecting to face.
"Ground and pound, that's their M.O," defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson said. "Ground and pound and hit you up top. Inside, we have to be stout. Defensive line, just overall, we have to be stout. The linebackers will come down here, fill up the gaps and we'll get the ball carrier down."
It's possible that the Steelers will be without their top running back, Rashard Mendenhall, who has led the team on the ground in both yards and touchdowns in each of the last three years. Mendenhall injured his knee in Week 16 of the 2011 season and underwent surgery in January. He practiced for the first time in nearly a year on Monday.
But regardless of who is lined up in the backfield for Pittsburgh, the Broncos are expecting a true test.
"All the tailbacks they have are solid overall as a group," Vickerson said. "(Isaac) Redman, (Jonathan Dwyer), they're all big backs. We just have to get them down and gang-tackle."The Broncos are aware that they'll have plenty on their plate throughout the rest of the week as they prepare for the Steelers. Come Sunday night, the team will find out just how far it's come this offseason.
"It's going to test how physical how we are," Mays said. "It's basically going to set our identity for the year. We're looking forward to it. You couldn't start with a better game than the Steelers."