ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Brian Dawkins' biggest contribution in the playoffs will be with his talking and not his tackling.
Hampered by a neck injury, the Denver Broncos' emotional leader hasn't practiced in weeks and was ruled out Friday for the first-round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend.
Still, Dawkins will be heard, even if it's screaming from the sideline instead of barking out plays inside the huddle.
His voice has already energized the Broncos (8-8) after Dawkins delivered a rare speech following a 7-3 loss to Kansas City. He emphatically urged his teammates to forget about backing into the AFC West crown and focus on the Steelers (12-4).
"He'll be effective, one way or another," Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said. "He's the leader of this team."
Still, his loss on the field is a big blow. Rookie Quinton Carter will play free safety while third-year player David Bruton once again fills in for Dawkins, just like he did last weekend against the Chiefs.
Sure, those two younger safeties are far more spry than the 38-year-old Dawkins, but they don't have anywhere near his level of recognition, something quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will attempt to exploit on Sunday.
"Is (Dawkins) the same player he once was? Probably not," said former Broncos safety John Lynch, who's now a television analyst. "But he's still really good if you put him in the right situation and I feel (defensive coordinator) Dennis Allen has done a great job in doing that all year. Come playoff time, certain principals come back and I always believed the safety position is huge.
"You can do so much at that position, and that's a tough loss — and really on a team that doesn't have a whole lot of playoff experience. Dawk brings that. I think it's tough."
Pittsburgh is without one of its top safeties as well. Ryan Clark is sitting out as a precaution because of a blood disorder that's exacerbated by altitude.
That's just as big of a loss. After all, the steady play of Clark frees up Troy Polamalu to freelance and fly around the field.
"Ryan does such an awesome job of complementing Troy," Roethlisberger said. "People don't realize that. Troy makes a lot of plays and gets a lot of notoriety for it and publicity, but really I think Ryan is kind of the backbone for it. People don't know, but Troy ad-libs a lot. Troy just sees stuff and that's what makes him so good.
"We'll have to see how Troy does without Ryan back there as kind of his safety blanket."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.