Key Matchups: Steelers-Cardinals

Neal Coolong gives us his analysis of the key match-ups in Sunday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.

The Coolong Archive
Week 3: v. 49ers
Week 2: v. Bills
Week 1: @ Browns
WR Anquan Boldin vs. Steelers secondary
The success QB Kurt Warner and Boldin had last week nearly brought the Cardinals back to victory from a 20-3 deficit. They hooked up for two second half touchdowns, and Boldin had 14 catches for 181 yards on the game. His ability to find soft spots in zone defenses is his strongest talent.

The Steelers' zone-blitz defense depends heavily on the secondary's ability to close down the creases Boldin loves to patrol. QB Matt Leinart gets the nod over Warner this week, and if he's able to exploit the middle of the field, the Steelers are going to have a tough time stopping the Cardinals, particularly on third down. Boldin's ability to get open will dictate how much the Steelers are able to attack Leinart. The Cardinals are likely to be without starting RT rookie Levi Brown, so Boldin's importance as the primary receiver becomes even more prevalent.

WR Nate Washington vs. Cardinals secondary
Steelers WR Hines Ward is out for Sunday's game with a knee injury, so Washington will make the third start of his career. Washington is a graceful, dynamic receiver with loads of talent, but his hands are suspect, and has a reputation of running before he tucks the ball away. When he concentrates, though, the 6-foot-3 Washington is a dangerous receiver, both in short-yardage situations and down the field.

Arizona should have a tough enough time against Pittsburgh's powerful pass defense, and replacing Ward's savvy and toughness is impossible. Any time he's not in the game is an advantage for the Steelers opponents, but Arizona knows Washington is fully capable of getting open and making big plays. The Cardinals gave up multiple catches to six different receivers in their 26-23 loss at Baltimore in Week 3, and SS Adrian Wilson's personal foul penalty on TE Todd Heap with less than a minute in the game put the Ravens in range for the game-winning field goal.

NT Casey Hampton vs. C Al Johnson and C Chukky Okobi
Hampton is the key to the Steelers defense, especially against the run, and he has not been handled by any one offensive lineman yet this season. It's probably a big reason why the Steelers are allowing a paltry 79 yards rushing through three games. His ability to penetrate the backfield and force the running back straight into the teeth of the blitz from the edge is vintage Steelers football, and Hampton is doing it at an elite level right now. A team does not win often if they are forced to throw 50 times or more in a game.

Johnson is, at this point, the unquestioned starter in Arizona. He suffered a knee injury in Arizona's Week 1 loss at San Francisco, so the Cardinals signed Okobi, the former Steeler. Reports indicate Johnson will start Sunday, but with the way Hampton has been whipping opposing interior linemen, Okobi is likely to see action against his former team. Johnson and Okobi must assist the interior line not allowing Hampton to control the line of scrimmage, or it will be another dominant day for the Steelers run defense.

LT Marvel Smith vs. OLB Karlos Dansby
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Dansby is big, even for a strong side linebacker. He's not afraid to mix it up either, as shown by his 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks through three games. He flies to the ball, and generally causes disruption in an otherwise unspectacular Cardinals 4-3 defense (ranked 14th in the league with 314 yards allowed per game).

He will blitz and be just as effective as he is a run-stopper. When the Steelers go into their 3-WR set or their bunch formation, Smith will be locked on Dansby without backside help from the tight end if he's looking to rush the line. In order for RB Willie Parker to continue his torrid pace (he leads the NFL with 368 rushing yards in three games), Smith will have to be able to seal off Dansby, and not allow him to shed the block.

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

Steel City Insider Top Stories