Key match-ups: Steelers-49ers

Neal Coolong explores the key one-on-one match-ups that'll make all the difference when the Steelers meet the 49ers Sunday.

The Coolong Archive
Week 2: v. Bills
Week 1: @ Browns
RT Willie Colon vs. LOLBs Hannibal Navies, Brandon Moore or Parys Haralson

The 49ers announced Thursday that starting LOLB Manny Lawson tore the ACL in his left knee, and is out for the season. Lawson was tied for second on the team with 12 tackles, and has a sack. Nine-year veteran Hannibal Navies is listed next on the team's depth chart, but the San Francisco Chronicle suggests that 49ers coach Mike Nolan could go with Parys Haralson or possibly Brandon Moore.

"Parker run right" is likely to be in the game plan Sunday, especially considering the injury. RT Willie Colon has been a dominant run blocker so far this season, and while faced with a tough challenge against Pro Bowler Aaron Schobel last week, he held his own in pass protection as well. The 49ers were counting on a lot of production from Lawson, and whomever replaces him is going to have to step up if the 49ers want to have any chance of slowing down Pittsburgh's sixth-ranked scoring offense.

WR Hines Ward vs. CB Nate Clements

Both Clements and Ward are among the best at their respective positions, but it's their versatility in those roles that make them elite. Their match-up will be in both the passing and running games.

Clements excels in press coverage. Standing 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, he's one of the bigger corners in the league. But as he demonstrated last week with six tackles and a game-changing forced fumble against St. Louis, he really makes his money (he signed an eight-year, $80 million contract with San Francisco this off-season) on what he does in run support and open field tackling.

The four-time Pro Bowler Ward is going to own every receiving record the Steelers have by the end of his career. His legacy, though, is more his reputation as the best blocking receiver in the game today, and of his generation. Ward will be asked to clear Clements out of the play on running downs, especially in the 3-WR set the Steelers have been using.

ILBs Larry Foote and James Farrior vs. RB Frank Gore

Gore showed how dangerous a downhill runner he is in a beautiful 43-yard touchdown run against St. Louis in Week 2. Two St. Louis defenders had him dead-to-rights after the first seven yards, but he cut to the outside, then back down the seam and was never touched again. He's not the back the Steelers will want getting into space very often.

Pittsburgh's run defense has extended its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 27 games. Gore will give them the first real test of the season for the league's fifth-ranked run defense (74 yards per game). Farrior has been the key against the run, leading the team with 17 total tackles. He and Foote cannot allow Gore to break any tackles, and must finish off any wrap-ups their teammates have.

SS Troy Polamalu vs. TE Vernon Davis

While Polamalu doesn't exclusively cover the tight end - his responsibilities vary from play to play - he's the most athletic player on the Steelers defense, and the 49ers best weapon is Davis.

He has similar attributes to Cleveland TE Kellen Winslow, who was moderately effective against the Steelers (four catches, 83 yards) after the Browns trailed by several scores. Davis is more a huge wide receiver than a pure tight end, but only has four catches so far this season. However, with the physical attributes he has, he's a threat every time he releases off the line. If Smith is able to get Davis involved early, it will force Polamalu to tail Davis instead of wreaking havoc around the line and in the backfield. If San Francisco uses Davis to limit Polamalu's opportunities to make plays on the ball - or even get the nickel back or free safety on him - the 49ers could work Gore in at a high rate of success.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit 49ers
x Offensive line  
x Quarterback  
  Running backs x
x Wide receivers  
even Tight ends even
even Defensive line even
x Linebackers  
  Defensive backs x
x Special teams  

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