ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Brian Dawkins' biggest contribution Sunday in the AFC wild card 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.
Still, Dawkins will be heard, even if it's screaming from the sideline instead of barking out the calls.
His voice has already energized the Broncos (8-8) after Dawkins delivered a rare speech following a 7-3 loss to Kansas City last week. He emphatically urged his teammates to forget about backing into the AFC West crown and fervently 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."
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," Steelers quarterback Ben 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."
Dawkins' loss is a blow to a team that lacks much playoff experience.
Rookie Quinton Carter will play free safety while third-year player David Bruton once again fills in for Dawkins, provided, of course, he's healthy. Bruton is listed as questionable with an aching Achilles that's bothered him for weeks.
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 Roethlisberger will try to exploit.
"I don't know if anybody fills the void of (Dawkins') leadership and his ability to get us excited about playing," Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "Brian's been an outstanding player for a long time."