Perhaps the glaring statistical comparison in this game is Seattle's lack of efficiency in running the ball (17th, 104.5 yards per game) vs. Pittsburgh's strong ability to stop the run (8th, 81.2). However, Seattle is 7th in the NFL with 249.5 pass yards a game. Therein lies the chess match between the coaches.
When Tomlin was the defensive coordinator in Minnesota, the Vikings went up against New England on Monday Night in Week 8. The Vikings were by far the league's toughest run defense, so Patriots coach Bill Belichick just didn't bother running the ball. QB Tom Brady threw for 372 yards and four touchdowns, as the Patriots rolled all over the Vikings 31-7. Belichick's reasoning was simple: they weren't going to run for much success, so why try if they can use their best strength, their passing game? Seattle is really no different than that. Shaun Alexander is not the back he was in 2005 when he was the NFL MVP. QB Matt Hasselbeck is already putting up career numbers, so, on paper, it makes more sense for the Seahawks to throw at the Steelers depleted secondary – CB Bryant McFadden is out due to an ankle injury and SS Troy Polamalu was listed as questionable Saturday afternoon.
How Tomlin would react if that is what Seattle tries to do is critical. As evidenced last week against Arizona, the Steelers secondary had a real tough time slowing down Arizona's passing attack. Granted, neither Polamalu nor NT Casey Hampton were in the game, but QB Kurt Warner was completing the same passes Hasselbeck has gone to multiple Pro Bowls completing. If Holmgren does largely abandon the run to attack exclusively through the air, Tomlin will need to have prepared his secondary for a tiring afternoon.
QB Matt Hasselbeck vs. Steelers secondary
Hasselbeck is off to perhaps the best start of his career. His 67.1 completion percentage is the highest he's ever had through the first four games of the season, and has spread the ball around very well for the 3-1 Seahawks. Nine Seattle receivers have two catches or more this season. Between Deion Branch and Bobby Engram – Hasselbeck's top two targets – they have 37 catches for 579 yards (15.6 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
With McFadden out, either veteran Ricardo Colclough or rookie William Gay will have to fill that role. The Seahawks are built to attack through the air, and with Alexander playing with a cast on his left hand to protect a cracked wrist, It's a decent bet to suggest Hasselbeck will throw until his arm comes off. How well the Steelers can prevent the big play will be the telling feature of whether they will win.
K Jeff Reed vs The Elements
The Seahawks are something of an anomaly on defense. They allow 327 yards per game, which is 18th in the league, but they only allow 13 points per game – 5th stingiest in the NFL. This bend-only defense has only allowed four touchdowns, but nine field goal opportunities, eight of which have been made.
Conversely, the Steelers have been effective in moving the ball down the field through four games (7th in the NFL at 354 yards per game), but have failed to get six in the red zone plenty often. While back-up TE Matt Spaeth and his team-high two red zone TD receptions will return for the Steelers, this game could come down to Reed's ability to make field goals at Heinz Field – where he is 7-for-7 this season, and 62-for-79 (78 percent) in his six-year career.
NT Casey Hampton vs. Seahawks C Chris Spencer, G Rob Sims, and G Chris Gray
If the Steelers have an indispensable player on defense, it's Hampton. His quickness and strength are keys to the Steelers overwhelming run defense, but he's going to have to win the line of scrimmage, command a double-team and collapse the pocket around Hasselbeck if the Steelers are going to slow down Seattle's precision passing game. If Hampton is able to dominate up front, that will force Seattle to increase protection in the interior. This plays right into the Steelers edge blitzers, and will throw Hasselbeck's rhythm out of whack.
If Spencer, Sims and Gray are able to neutralize Hampton, the Seahawks will be able to establish Alexander out of the backfield a bit more effectively than they have so far this year (only 3.9 yards a carry in four games). Depending on whether or not Hampton rushes to the left or right of center, he's going to force the Seahawks to commit the guard and center to stopping him.
|The Coolong Scorecard|