Key Match-ups: Steelers-Patriots

Neal Coolong looks at the key match-ups between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.

The Coolong Archive
Week 13: v. Bengals
Week 12: v. Dolphins
Week 11: @ 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 Tom Brady

As of Saturday, Steelers SS Troy Polamalu was listed as doubtful for Sunday's game. Jim Wexell reported a collision between he and a teammate exacerbated his knee injury in practice on Wednesday.

If he doesn't play, it will be his third missed game in a row, but the Steelers are 3-0 in his absence this season. Carter filled in the last two weeks against Cincinnati and the Jets, and also played for Polamalu in a Week 5 shutout of the NFC West-leading Seahawks.

Polamalu's talents cannot be replaced, but Carter's physical presence helps the Steelers bring a different look when their best player is out. Carter and FS Anthony Smith combine for a punishing 2-Deep safety combination, and it could be right in line with what the Steelers need to do to eliminate the big play. Brady has lived off the big play all season, and he will have to adapt to having less film on the Steelers out of that set. It will play a part in how much Brady will be able to attack the Steelers outside the numbers.

CB Ike Taylor vs. WR Randy Moss

Taylor usually handles Cincinnati's bevy of talented receivers well, but there's no one in the NFL who can match Moss's ability to make plays down the sideline. It will be crucial for Taylor – and the Steelers – to aggressively attack Moss at the line of scrimmage, while playing an inside shade technique on him in coverage. He needs to press him at the snap, and follow behind Moss's inside shoulder to eliminate deep dig and crossing routes. The safety over the top will have to be ready to take him down the sideline, because Brady has the ability to deliver a perfect pass over Moss's outside shoulder.

Moss isn't as big as a receiver like Dallas's Terrell Owens, but he uses his quickness to avoid jams along the line. His arms are long, and that helps him escape early efforts to throw him off his route. He's going to have to break that initial chuck, and get to his route in a hurry. If he is able to run hard, he will draw two defenders every route he runs, and dictate much of what the Steelers are doing in the secondary.

RB Willie Parker vs. LBs Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau

The Patriots' linebacking unit as a whole has shown its age in recent weeks. They were gouged by quick running backs with receiving ability (Joseph Addai and Brian Westbrook). Last week, powerful Willis McGahee of Baltimore was running very successfully for most of the game. At the heart of that problem for the Patriots' defense are two aging linebackers. Bruschi and Seau have attacked successfully straight on, but haven't moved very well side-to-side. The Steelers can get to the edge in the run game, and put Parker in a situation to out-run either defender with success.

Strangely, the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship game after the 2001 season, largely because, without RB Jerome Bettis in there to plow between the tackles, the Steelers weren't able to neutralize New England's sideline-to-sideline speed. The Steelers should be able to do that Sunday. They love to attack out of the single-back formation, which will spread New England's quarter defense out. If Parker gets isolated on Bruschi or Seau out of that, Pittsburgh can run at them. They can even use Parker as a receiver, something they haven't used much this year.

NT Casey Hampton vs. C Dan Koppen

Blocking Hampton one-on-one is nearly impossible, and bringing another guard to keep Hampton from blowing the run up in the backfield exposes the A or B gap. That will allow Pittsburgh's ILBs James Farrior and Larry Foote to fire in and disrupt New England from the middle. The Patriots will abandon the run game almost entirely if Hampton is dominating that much up front.

Koppen is a solid center, but will have to play Hampton straight on. Pittsburgh has a speed advantage along the interior of the line of scrimmage, and if Koppen can keep the front of the pocket established, Brady can utilize it at a high level of success, as he has done all season. The Patriots will need to have consistency in their run game if they want to set up anything deep against Pittsburgh's Cover 2 – should they choose to ditch the base defense.

OLBs James Harrison and Clark Haggans vs. LT Matt Light and RT Nick Kaczur

Harrison was named Defensive Player of the Month for November, largely due to the monster game he had against Baltimore in Week 9 (3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception, nine tackles). Harrison has been playing at a high level all season, leading the NFL with seven forced fumbles, and ranks fourth in the AFC with 8.5 sacks. Haggans has four sacks of his own, and has quietly played well from the defensive left side.

If the Patriots have been exposed up to this point, it's a few big plays here and there given up by their tackles. Light – the AFC's leading Pro Bowl vote-getter at tackle – has been solid, but has perhaps his toughest match-up of the year with Harrison. That's not only because of Harrison's ability, but the scheme in which he operates has confused many tackles. Dallas runs a similar defense to Pittsburgh, and Light missed LB Greg Ellis blitzing in their game in Week 6, and he tattooed Brady, forcing a fumble. Kaczur has examples of blown assignments as well. He struggled on a few occasions with communicating and picking up the overload blitz Baltimore threw at him. Haggans and Harrison could help limit the Patriots ability to go deep by pressuring Brady, and keeping him from stepping up in the pocket.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Patriots
  Offensive line x
  Quarterback x
x Running backs  
  Wide receivers x
x Tight ends  
even Defensive line even
x Linebackers  
even Defensive backs even
  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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