In Saturday's key matchup, we revisit a one-on-one battle that played a key role in Denver beating Pittsburgh in the 2011 wild-card round.
Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas
When the Steelers and Broncos met in January in the final game of the wild-card weekend, Pittsburgh controlled matters early. The Steelers held the ball for 11:40 in the first quarter, and they looked very much like the favorites they were.
However, promising drives of eight and 12 plays ended in field goals, leaving Pittsburgh with a mere 6-0 lead after 15 minutes.
Perhaps the Steelers could have seized control of matters early with 10 or 14 points. The Broncos had lurched into the playoffs, losing their final three games, and they had managed but three points in their regular-season finale vs. Kansas City. An early lead of more than a touchdown might have been a hurdle too tall for Denver. We'll never know.
When the second quarter started, though, the Steelers' advantage quickly evaporated. Two plays into the quarter, on 3rd-and-12 from the Denver 18, Broncos QB Tim Tebow took a shotgun snap and scanned the field. He had plenty of time in the pocket thanks to solid protection from his offensive line. Soon he started to roll left, and he threw a deep strike to WR Demaryius Thomas, who had gotten behind CB Ike Taylor. Thomas was covered initially, but he altered his route, and Tebow, who had about 5-6 seconds to make a play, found him for a 51-yard gain. Two plays later, Tebow hit WR Eddie Royal for a 30-yard TD, and the Broncos had the lead.
On the next series, the Broncos faced a 2nd-and-7 from their 30. The 6-3, 229-pound Thomas, the only wideout in the formation, was lined up to the left. The Steelers crowded the line, with all 11 defenders within about six yards of the line of scrimmage. Tebow faked to RB Willis McGahee and dropped back to pass. TE Dante Rosario ran underneath, drawing SS Troy Polamalu's attention. FS Ryan Mundy closed toward the line of scrimmage and was out of deep coverage.
The 6-2, 195-pound Taylor, who was in man coverage vs. Thomas, was all alone. Thomas, among other moves in a unique route, started outward, then cut inward, then stopped, leaving Taylor behind. Tebow hit Thomas downfield, and the 58-yard gain set up another TD.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Thomas wasn't done making big plays. His crowning acheivement came on the first play of overtime. The Steelers again crowded the line of scrimmage, with Mundy — who was in the lineup for starter Ryan Clark, who does not play at high altitude because of health concerns — again rushing the line of scrimmage. Tebow, who was in the shotgun, faked a handoff. Thomas, with Taylor again in man-coverage, ran a slant and got inside of his opponent.
Tebow delivered the ball on-target about 17 yards downfield, and Thomas did the rest, stiff-arming Taylor and sprinting for a 80-yard touchdown, earning Denver a 29-23 win.
For Thomas, it was a breakout performance. For Taylor, it was a low point in a solid nine-year career. A seven-season starter for Pittsburgh, Taylor has played very well at times, and the 2011 regular season was one of his better ones.
How Taylor fares if again matched up with Thomas figures to be closely watched. The 24-year-old Thomas was a decisive winner in the last meeting, and he could be a player on the rise. Will he again prove too much for Taylor, a player eight years his senior?
Counting out Taylor may be dangerous, considering his work ethic, athleticism, competitiveness and experience. Surely he will be up for this matchup.
What's more, Thomas, for as well as he played in the wild-card round, will have to beat Taylor different ways this time. The Steelers won't be crowding the line with Peyton Manning, not Tebow, under center.
Anyway you look at it, this is a fascinating rematch.