Key Match-ups: Steelers-Eagles

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles.

QB Donovan McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook vs. Steelers linebackers
It's the blood of the Eagles' offense – Westbrook remaining in the backfield or splitting out wide. The Eagles have him on the move to see what the defense is going to do to contain him. Westbrook is one of the most versatile players in the NFL, and will be a factor in this game on the ground and in the air. McNabb uses Westbrook as his main weapon, and will force a linebacker to cover him in the slot. This helps nullify the Steelers' blitzing package, as well as gain a sizeable advantage, should the Steelers use OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on him. Both are clearly a step slower than Westbrook, and it's a certainty they will use Westbrook on wheel routes if they see a slower defender on him.

An interesting card the Steelers may play is ILB Lawrence Timmons. He is the Steelers' fastest linebacker, and the team will need him to not only provide contain on McNabb – one of the game's best scrambling QBs – but also to keep up with the shifty Westbrook when he's split out. If he or any other Steelers linebacker, including ILBs James Farrior and Larry Foote, are able to keep Westbrook at bay, it will force McNabb into looking elsewhere, and not to his All-Pro running back.

WR Hines Ward vs. FS Brian Dawkins
Against, Dallas in Week 2, the Eagles were able to force Dawkins into covering All-Pro WR Terrell Owens. That's as big a mismatch as there is in the NFL. What's worse, Dawkins let the big and athletic Owens to his inside, where he is at his best. He took a slant pass on Dawkins for a touchdown, one of the two he had on the game.

Ward does not have Owens' size or athleticism, but it's tough to find a receiver in the NFL better than Ward when it comes to get open in the inside, especially on slants and posts. Ward and QB Ben Roethlisberger are loving the match-up, and if pass protection can hold up, the Steelers will run it out of their trips bunch formation, with Ward running a delayed post down the middle.

LT Marvel Smith vs. DE Trent Cole
It's been a rough few games for Smith. He drew Texans' DE Mario Williams and Browns' OLB Kamerion Wimbley in the first two games, and will see the Eagles Pro Bowl pass rusher in this one. Smith did an excellent job overall on the freakish Williams, and held Wimbley out of sack column. His ability to do the same to Cole will go a long way in the Steelers' offensive line's toughest test yet – defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson's blitz scheme.

Cole is a huge part of that scheme. If he's able to get penetration and pressure Steelers Roethlisberger, it will command a double-team and the Steelers aren't going to have blockers to spare against the fast and aggressive Eagles' front seven. If that pressure forces Roethlisberger to step up in the pocket and rush his throw, he's libel to throw right into the Eagles' play-making secondary.

FS Ryan Clark vs. WR Desean Jackson
The Eagles' West Coast Offense dictates advantageous match-ups with pre-snap motion and shifts. One of the match-ups McNabb is going to look for is Jackson in the slot with free safety Ryan Clark showing zone over the top. If Smith is able to get to the second level, and McNabb is still on his feet, Jackson has shown incredible speed and the ability to run past zones, and could make a few big plays. Clark is better in run support, but has good pass coverage skills. If he's able to neutralize Jackson when he's the Eagles primary receiver in his zone, it will take one on-paper mismatch away from the Eagles' explosive offense.

McNabb has attacked the seam with confidence, and through two games, the Steelers have not been challenged down the field. Starting right guard Shawn Andrews is doubtful for Sunday's game, which will likely draw several fire-blitzes aimed at back-up Max Jean-Giles, but Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend is likely out with a heel injury, which thins out the Steelers sub packages. This could put the Eagles into more 3 and 4 WR sets to spread the Steelers secondary out of the box, which is a good sign they will be looking to Jackson to stretch the defense. Look for Jackson to run deep seam routes, and mix in a double-move or two off play-action aimed at Clark's aggression against the run.

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

Neal Coolong is the author of On The Black Side, and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.

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