Hartwig is an undersized but technically savvy center. Jamal Williams is a behemoth, and one of the best 0-technique tackles in the game. Hartwig's ability to seal Williams off will be instrumental in the Steelers' ability to control the clock, and keep the Chargers' high-powered offense off the field.
The Steelers have run the ball very poorly in 2008, but it's not due to a lack of effort. They are the only team in the NFL who is rushing more than 24 times per game, but not averaging 100 yards per game (3.5 yards per carry, 30th in the NFL). With the return of RB Willie Parker, the Steelers' offensive line needs to get more physical through four quarters. That starts with Hartwig.
Forget the seven interceptions in the past three games. The return of Parker also gives the Steelers a legitimate big-play running back behind Roethlisberger. That alone will have the hard-hitting Weddle drooling to stuff the run.
While Weddle supports the run very well, Roethlisberger's ability to utilize play-action, especially with two excellent deep threats like Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington, give him a nice advantage Sunday. If the Steelers offense is able to establish the run, Roethlisberger will have a great chance to establish the timing he's had with his receivers in the past. This could lead to a few big plays against a suspect Chargers pass defense (last in the NFL, giving up 265 yards per game).
Farrior is a better pass defender than either Larry Foote or Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers front seven should be able to hold the line of scrimmage against a fairly mediocre Chargers offensive line, look for the Chargers to abandon the battle in the middle, and work to get the now healthy Tomlinson in space. Chargers QB Phillip Rivers leads the NFL with 8.72 yards per attempt, and that's largely due to the danger Tomlinson brings in the receiving game.
Not only is Farrior expected to bring the heat against Tomlinson on the ground, but he's going to provide primary coverage of him on swing passes and screens – two plays the Chargers are likely to call early and often.
Gay, in his second season, gets his first career start for the injured Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden. The Steelers secondary has played as well as any other unit in the league, and is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 74 passer rating. They were challenged last week by the Colts and their variety of double-moves. This week, they're getting challenged by the size and strength of the Chargers receivers.
With LCB Ike Taylor likely on the shifty Chris Chambers, Gay, who stands at 5-foot-10, will get locked on the 6-foot-5 Jackson. Rivers loves to spread the ball around, and the Chargers have three players with 30 or more catches this season – Antonio Gates (38), Jackson (35) and Tomlinson (33). But Rivers will notice if he gets Jackson alone on the inexperienced and undersized Gay.
|The Coolong Scorecard|
Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.