Key Match-ups: Steelers-Dolphins

Neal Coolong looks at the key match-ups between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins.

The Coolong Archive
Week 11: v. Jets
Week 10: v. Browns
Week 9: v. Ravens
Week 8: @ Bengals
Week 7: @ Broncos
Week 6: Bye
Week 5: v. Seahawks
Week 4: @ Cardinals
Week 3: v. 49ers
Week 2: v. Bills
Week 1: @ Browns
SS Tyrone Carter vs. QB John Beck

When the Steelers were without Troy Polamalu in Week 5 against Seattle, it was Anthony Smith, not Carter, who got the nod. With Ryan Clark on injured-reserve, Smith is now starting at free safety, and Carter will replace Polamalu, who is out with a knee injury. The question becomes how will the Steelers use Carter. Polamalu cannot be replaced, but the Steelers defense had perhaps their best outing of the season in Week 5, shutting out NFC Pro Bowl QB Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks.

The Steelers have been playing more Cover 2 in recent weeks, and only rushing three or four while dropping everyone else back to force Beck – who is starting his second NFL game – to identify coverage seems to be the smart move. Beck will need to identify Carter before the snap to see what the veteran will be doing. He won't be freelancing between rushing and coverage the way Polamalu does, but if Carter can get in his head, he can force a bad read, and lead to a turnover or two. Beck didn't throw an interception or take a sack against Philadelphia in Week 11, his first start of his career.

TE Heath Miller vs. MLB Channing Crowder

This will be the fourth game this season the Steelers are facing the league's worst rush defense, statistically (Denver Oct. 21, Cleveland Nov. 11 and New York Jets Nov. 18). Miami doesn't do anything on defense particularly well, and with veteran MLB Zach Thomas out Monday (headaches resulting from a concussion earlier this year), Crowder is going to have to have an outstanding game if his defense will have any chance to stop Pittsburgh's offense. Miami has given up big games to Cleveland TE Kellen Winslow II and Houston TE Owen Daniels, both games on the road.

The Steelers can attack Miami from their double-tight end set with Miller and Matt Spaeth. If Miller can get down the middle seam and take Crowder with him, it will keep the Dolphins best run defender back a few steps, and give the Steelers' offensive line a chance to establish the run up front. Crowder is very athletic, and will be disruptive against the run much like Jets rookie LB David Harris was last week.

DE Aaron Smith vs. RB Ricky Williams

It won't be said much, but the Steelers stalwart DE Smith missed a few tackles last week that helped Jets Thomas Jones rush for 117 yards – the first time a back cracked 100 yards in 35 games. Smith rarely has a bad game, and he wasn't the only Steeler missing tackles last week. Look for him to rebound from that in a painful way for Williams. The Steelers are still third in the league, allowing just 79.9 yards per game on the ground. Smith dominates his blocker at the point of attack, and can shed him and get to the ball carrier as well as anyone. If he wraps up as he usually does, it will be a long game for the Dolphins ground attack.

Williams's suspension from the entire 2006 season, and the majority of the 2007 season, was lifted this week. Veteran journeyman Jesse Chatman has been fairly successful in his three starts, rushing for 392 yards and a touchdown (4.6 yards per carry). He is currently listed as questionable with an ankle injury, and Williams is reported to have been looking strong in practice this week – his first week back with the team. He looks to get the start, but if he doesn't, he likely will get the bulk of the carries. With Ronnie Brown on injured-reserve, the Dolphins have been reasonable effective rushing through 10 games. They average 115 yards per game, but the bulk of that was from Brown. It's not an easy task to run against Pittsburgh, but they will have to control the clock by running the ball to help protect their injury-depleted defense and take the heat off their young quarterback.

RB Willie Parker vs. the new sod on Heinz Field

Heinz Field was just re-sodded due to WPIAL championship games being played over Thanksgiving, and the South Florida/Pitt game on Saturday. As Jim Wexell reported on Steel City Insider, the new sod will be placed after Pitt's game Saturday. Traditionally, the Steelers stadium hasn't had the greatest surface late in the year. The new traction could help Parker, or it could hurt him. He slipped a few times last week at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

What has made Parker one of the better backs in the game has been his speed, but in order to use that speed on the outside, he needs his balance on the inside to get through the hole. During his recent slide (199 yards in his last three games), his legs haven't seemed to follow where his vision wants him to go. His balance has been all over the place. The team hasn't listed Parker on the injury report, and has hasn't missed any time, but it looks like his league-leading 233 carries (second in yards with 925) is catching up with him. Parker needs 75 yards to crack 1,000 for the third consecutive season, and as we saw last week, the level of defense doesn't have to be great to stop Parker. He can stop himself if he isn't balanced and even in his legs.

WR Nate Washington vs. CB Mike Lehan

Washington will get the start in place of Santonio Holmes at the X-receiver position (split end), but is likely to share snaps with Cedrick Wilson. Washington is a bit more dynamic of a playmaker than Wilson, but his hands are suspect. Roethlisberger goes to Washington when he's on the field despite not being the most reliable target. Washington is athletic, and can out-jump most defensive backs he goes up against. The Steelers have confidence in Washington's ability to at least get open. If he and Roethlisberger can connect on a big play or two, Miami will have a tough time defending Miller and WR Hines Ward, not to mention put enough defenders in the box to stop RB Willie Parker.

The Dolphins, on paper, are the league's 4th-ranked pass defense, as they allow 181.1 yards per game. That's mostly due to the fact teams have attempted a league-low 246 passes against them. The 31st ranked team in that stat is Oakland, with 269. Lehan does not have an interception this season, and will get help over the top with the safeties playing a two-deep scheme. Lehan will have a tough matchup in terms of athleticism against Washington, and defending the short to intermediate routes will be critical. He will get help deep, but he will still have to turn and run with him, as the Steelers' explosive offense requires the X-receiver to make big plays. A lot of the Steelers deep passing plays off the play fake, so discipline will also be critical for Lehan.

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

Neal Coolong is the author of Die Hard Steel and his match-ups column appears weekly at Steel City Insider.

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