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Sunday Night Football

Sunday Night Football

Game Preview for Steelers vs Broncos

(Sports Network) - Two well-rested teams get together this Sunday at Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High, where the Pittsburgh Steelers try to maintain their early-season success against a reeling Broncos squad.

Both clubs are coming off a bye week that came at an opportune time. The AFC North-leading Steelers were able to rest four key players that were not a part of their resounding 21-0 Week 5 victory over Seattle, while the Broncos got a chance to go back to the drawing board and find out what went wrong after a promising 2-0 start to the season was dampened by three straight defeats prior to the hiatus.

Denver's latest setback was the most troubling of the sequence, as the Broncos were humbled by division-rival San Diego two weeks ago at Invesco Field. The Chargers handed the franchise its worst home loss in 41 years with a 41-3 beating that was every bit as one-sided as the final score indicated.

San Diego piled up 214 yards on the ground against a Denver defense that ranks last in the NFL defending the run and has been trampled in each of its last three games. The Broncos yielded 226 rushing yards to Indianapolis the previous week, and 186 to Jacksonville in a 23-14 home loss on September 23.

Denver could have similar problems this Sunday, since the Steelers own the league's second-best ground attack and speedy running back Willie Parker has gone for over 100 yards in four of the team's five games. Pittsburgh has won all four of those contests.

The Steelers' impressive 4-1 beginning under first-year head coach Mike Tomlin has been built on a strong running game and an even better defense. Pittsburgh has surrendered the fewest yards (235.6 ypg) and points (47) in the NFL this season and completely shut down a well-regarded Seattle attack two Sundays ago. The Seahawks mustered only 144 total yards and seven first downs while being shut out for the first time since 2000.

Pittsburgh's defense dominated despite being without two Pro Bowl performers in safety Troy Polamalu (rib cage) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring), while its top two receivers, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, were also sidelined due to knee and hamstring injuries, respectively. All four players could be back in action for Sunday's tilt, with Hampton the only one considered a game-time decision.

The Broncos have lost eight of their last 12 games dating back to last season, but are historically dangerous following a bye. Denver has won its post-break game in each of the last four seasons and is 9-3 after a bye in head coach Mike Shanahan's tenure.

SERIES HISTORY

Denver has a 12-6-1 advantage in the all-time regular season series with Pittsburgh, including a 31-20 win at Heinz Field in Week 9 of the 2006 season. The Broncos also won the previous regular season meeting played between the teams in Denver, a 17-14 triumph in 2003. The Steelers' last regular season win in the series came in 1997, and Pittsburgh is 0-3 in regular season matchups played in Denver since recording its last such win, in 1990.

The Broncos and Steelers have split six games in the postseason, including a 34-17 Pittsburgh win in the 2005 AFC Championship from Invesco Field at Mile High. The Broncos had won the previous postseason meeting between the teams, a 24-21 win at Three Rivers Stadium in the 1997 Championship. Denver also won AFC Divisional Playoff matchups in 1977 (34-21) and 1989 (24-23), while losing Divisional Playoff games in 1978 (33-10) 1984 (24-17).

Shanahan is 3-2 in his career against the Steelers, including the 2005 playoff loss and 1997 playoff win. Tomlin will be meeting both Shanahan and Denver for the first time as a head coach.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

It's hardly a secret that the Steelers will attempt to pound away with the running game on Sunday. Pittsburgh is averaging a healthy 167 yards per game on the ground, with Parker (507 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions) having topped the century mark in seven of his last nine outings dating back to last year. Backup Najeh Davenport (209 rushing yards, 3 TD, 7 receptions) also got in on the act in the Week 5 win over Seattle, as the sixth-year pro put up 58 yards on only seven attempts and scored two second-half touchdowns.

Pittsburgh's powerful rushing assault has also benefited quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (1013 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT), who thrived in the Seattle game even without the presence of the ultra-steady Ward (9 receptions, 1 TD) and the rapidly-improving Holmes (14 receptions, 3 TD). The stoic signal- caller completed 18-of-22 passes for 206 yards without an interception against the Seahawks, while also finding trusty tight end Heath Miller (17 receptions, 2 TD) for a 13-yard touchdown strike. Holmes has been the most dangerous of the group this year, as the second-year standout is averaging better than 20 yards a catch and all 14 of his grabs have gone for first downs.

Denver's star-studded secondary headlined by All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey (33 tackles, 1 INT) has made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks this season, but enemy runners have been having field days against the Broncos' leaky defense. The unit is allowing unacceptable averages of 187.6 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry in 2007. All that rushing by Denver's foes has provided plenty of work for middle linebacker D.J. Williams (42 tackles, 1 sack) and strong safety Nick Ferguson (36 tackles), the group's top two tacklers.

The defensive backfield has some concerns as well, as Bailey suffered a strained quadriceps in the San Diego loss and could be limited by the injury on Sunday. The Broncos have given up a league-best 145.6 passing yards per contest, but that low number is partially due to teams' preference to attack them via the run. Denver also hasn't put much pressure on the quarterback, as undersized end Elvis Dumervil (12 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) is the only member of the defense with more than one sack.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

Denver has also been a proficient running team, with Shanahan's patented zone- blocking scheme having produced 138.8 yards per game on the ground (8th overall) in 2007. Travis Henry (499 rushing yards, 1 TD) has flourished so far in the system, as the powerful back is averaging nearly five yards a carry and has eclipsed the century mark on three occasions this season, despite being saddled by some off-field issues. However, he'll be running behind a retooled line that lost five-time Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen to a season-ending biceps tear in the San Diego game and is also without regular left guard Ben Hamilton (concussion).

The Broncos have not been as consistent throwing the football, with the growing pains of second-year quarterback Jay Cutler (1158 passing yards, 4 TD, 6 INT) and No. 1 wide receiver Javon Walker's (19 receptions) nagging knee problems the primary reasons for the team's erratic passing game. Walker is expected to be back in the lineup after sitting out the last two games, however, and forms a strong wideout duo with emerging star Brandon Marshall (27 receptions, 2 TD), one of Cutler's favorite targets. Veteran Brandon Stokley (12 receptions, 1 TD) will return to his normal slot receiver role with Walker back in tow.

Cutler will likely be feeling the heat from a blitz-happy Pittsburgh defense that has racked up 17 sacks through the first five games. Most of the pressure has come from a formidable linebacking corps led by versatile veteran James Farrior (25 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 PD) and outside rusher Clark Haggans (15 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Even with Hampton (6 tackles) and Polamalu (12 tackles, 4 PD) unavailable, the Steelers continued their usual stout play against the run by limiting Seattle to a mere 38 rushing yards two weeks back. For the year, Pittsburgh ranks fourth in the NFL in run defense (72.6 ypg).

The Steelers' pass-rushing prowess has also helped them hold opponents to only 163 yards per game through the air, the second-best mark in the league. Polamalu will lend his ubiquitous presence back to the secondary for this week's game, but Pittsburgh will be without nickel back Bryant McFadden (13 tackles, 1 INT) for a second straight contest due to a high ankle sprain.

FANTASY FOCUS

Parker owners should be salivating over the big-play running back's fantasy- friendly matchup this week. He should be good for another 100-yard outing against Denver's hole-filled stop unit and may even be able to better his meager one-touchdown total on the year. The Pittsburgh defense is also a weekly must-play and will be facing a Broncos squad that has its share of troubles finding the end zone. Denver has also been burned by opposing tight ends in recent weeks, which makes Miller a nice sleeper play this week. Don't anticipate huge numbers out of Roethlisberger, however, with the Steelers likely to focus on running the ball.

On the Denver side, Walker should make a nice start as long as the talented wide receiver is ready to go. He torched the Steelers for 134 yards and two scores on six receptions in Denver's win at Heinz Field last November. Walker's availability will negatively affect Marshall's numbers, however, and Henry is looking like a risky play as well due to Pittsburgh's tough run defense and the troubled back's mediocre performance against San Diego two weeks ago. The Broncos will probably be airing it out often, making Cutler a decent option at quarterback.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

It's hard to dismiss a Shanahan-coached team that's had an extra week of preparation time, but it's hard to envision this problematic version being able to measure up to a Pittsburgh squad that's very sound on both sides of the ball. As Arizona proved back in Week 4, the way to beat the Steelers is to shut down their run game and make Roethlisberger throw it 30-35 times. Unfortunately for Denver fans, there's no evidence suggesting the Broncos will be able to accomplish that task. Having Walker back in the fold will help Cutler, but the Steelers should be able to pressure the still-developing young quarterback into at least one costly mistake. Pittsburgh is 16-1 when Parker runs for 100 yards or more. He'll get to that number once again on Sunday, and his team should come away with another victory in a venue that's been rather accommodating for visiting teams this season.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 24, Broncos 13

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Re: Sunday Night Football

Game Preview for Southern Miss vs Marshall

FACTS amp; STATS: Site: Joan C. Edwards Stadium (38,016) -- Huntington, West Virginia. Television: ESPN. Home Record: USM 2-1, Marshall 0-2. Away Record: USM 1-2, Marshall 0-4. Neutral Record: USM 0-0, Marshall 0-0. Conference Record: USM 2-1, Marshall 0-2. Series Record: Southern Mississippi leads, 2-0.

GAME NOTES: Still in search of their first win of the season, the Marshall Thundering Herd return home to host the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in Conference USA action this Sunday. The Herd concluded a long and unsuccessful three-game road trip this past weekend, dropping a 38-31 decision at Tulsa. It was the sixth loss in as many games this season and the seventh in a row dating back to last year for Marshall, which dipped to 0-2 in league play in the process. The team now returns home for the first time since dropping a 48-35 decision to New Hampshire all the way back on September 15th. As for USM, it comes into the tilt on a winning note following a 28-7 triumph over SMU last weekend. The win put an end to a brief two-game slide and improved the Eagles to 3-3 overall and 2-1 in C-USA play. The team however, now takes to the road, where it has gone just 1-2 thus far. USM has won the previous two meetings on the gridiron with Marshall, including a 42-7 beating in Hattiesburg last season.

The Eagles have done as solid job on the offensive side of the ball this season, averaging a 25.8 ppg and 387.3 total ypg. The unit has displayed good balance between the run (176.7 ypg) and pass (210.7 ypg), but 14 of its 20 touchdowns have come via the ground game. Last weekend, USM ran for 209 yards and passed for 212 more in a 28-7 win over SMU. Damion Fletcher led the charge with 108 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. One of the premier backs in C-USA, Fletcher has rushed for a team-best 637 yards and six touchdowns this season. Quarterback Stephen Reaves made his second straight start last weekend in place of injured Jeremy Young, and he threw for a touchdown and ran for another. Reaves, who threw four interceptions the previous week against Rice, completed 18-of-26 tosses with just one pick in last weekend's win. With Young listed as questionable with a high ankle sprain, expect Reaves to get the starting nod under center in this one. Whomever is under center, they will surely be looking the way of Chris Johnson, the team's leading receiver with 31 catches and 395 yards.

On the defensive side of the ball the Eagles are giving up 24.8 ppg and 354.8 total ypg on the season. The unit hasn't dominated against the run (150.0 ypg) or pass (204.8 ypg), but it has recorded 12 turnovers and the same amount of sacks. Last weekend, USM forced four turnovers and registered three sacks, as it limited SMU to just 361 total yards and seven points. Gerald McRath led the charge with 11 stops, giving him a total of 73 tackles for the year. Another player worth keeping an eye out for is Martavius Prince, who is tops on the team in TFLs (seven) and sacks (4.5). Prince turned in an all-around effort last weekend, posting five tackles to go along with a fumble recovery and sack.

Despite gaining a solid 394.8 total ypg this season, the Herd have only been able to average a modest 21.2 ppg. The team's inability to convert on third downs in one reason for the low scoring total, as Marshall is making just 35.0 percent of its attempts. Last weekend, the Herd converted on only 4-of-13 third down attempts, although it did racked up 444 total yards and 31 points in a losing cause to Tulsa. Bernard Morris put forth a solid effort in the setback, completing 21-of-37 pass attempts for 260 yards and two scores. For the year, Morris has completed an efficient 66.4 percent of his throws for 1,567 yards, with 11 touchdowns against five interceptions. He is also a threat with his legs, ranking second on the team with 169 rushing yards. Cody Slate and Darius Passmore have been his top two targets and they have combined for 70 catches, 895 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Last weekend, it was Slate's turn to shine and he did so by catching six balls for 102 yards and a score. As for the ground game, it is paced by Darius Marshall, who has rushed for 339 yards on just 56 carries.

The Herd ranks among the worst defenses around, as they are giving up a whopping 38.2 ppg this season. The unit has been abused on the ground (224.0 ypg) and through the air (244.8 ypg) and has forced a ridiculously low three turnovers. Against Tulsa last weekend, Marshall was burnt for 578 total yards, including 385 via the pass. The team did manage to force a rare turnover, but it also allowed Tulsa to convert 8-of-15 third down attempts. C.J. Spillman posted eight stops and a forced fumble in the setback, and he leads the team with 64 tackles for the year.

USM is the pick here and behind its balanced attack it should be able to get past a Marshall team that hasn't shown it can stop anyone from scoring.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Southern Mississippi 30, Marshall 21

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Re: Sunday Night Football

Pittsburgh (4-1 SU and ATS) at Denver (2-3, 0-5 ATS)

Two teams seeming headed in opposite directions conclude the Sunday action at Invesco Field at Mile High, as the slumping Broncos host the first-place Steelers.

Pittsburgh, coming off its bye week, drilled Seattle 21-0 in Week 5 as a six-point home chalk. QB Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient effort (18 of 22, 206 yards, 1 TD), and RBs Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport combined for 160 yards rushing as the Steelers held the ball for more than 40 minutes.

The Broncos were liking their wounds during their bye last week following a 41-3 home shellacking from San Diego as a one-point home dog on Oct. 7. The Broncos allowed 484 yards of total offense and were soundly beaten in all phases in their worst home loss in 41 years.

Denver is 5-17 ATS in its last 22 games overall and 1-13 ATS in its last 14 home games (0-3 ATS this year). One positive: Mike Shanahan’s teams are 5-0 ATS following a bye week the past five years.

The Steelers have won 10 of their last 13 games dating to 2006, going 9-3-1 ATS in the process. Pittsburgh is also 8-2-1 ATS in its last 11 as a favorite.

Including playoff meetings, the over is 8-2 in the last 10 clashes between these teams going back to 1989 (5-2 “over” in Denver). Also, the Broncos have topped the total in each of their last four overall.

ATS ADVANTAGE: PITTSBURGH and OVER

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