Key Match-ups: Steelers-Patriots

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.

SS Troy Polamalu vs. Wes Welker

Welker is the Patriots top receiving threat in terms of catches (one every five passing attempts), and is probably too quick for the Steelers linebackers to cover when he's lined up in the slot. He's adept at creating separation on slants and skinny posts, and plays the slot position like a running back getting a long handoff.

The key for the Steelers is for the equally quick Polamalu to handle him close to the line of scrimmage. If he's able to disrupt the initial read of Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, the Steelers can force him to look elsewhere. Polamalu won't have exclusive coverage of Welker, but he's their best chance to contain him. Eight catches in Sunday's game would give him 200 in the past 28 games since joining the Patriots in 2007.

CB Ike Taylor vs. Randy Moss

Much was made of Moss's performance last year against the Steelers. Taking away the 63 yard gadget play that targeted then-free safety Anthony Smith, not Taylor, Moss had six catches for 72 yards. That's a pretty vanilla day for the game's biggest playmaker. Taylor handled Moss most of that game, and did a pretty respectable job. The Steelers get CB Bryant McFadden back after missing the past five games with a broken forearm. That will help, considering how well he was playing before the injury.

The problem is, 2008 Moss isn't any different than 2007 Moss, minus an MVP under center. He's still deadly outside the numbers, and his physical attributes alone make him a favorable match-up against any defensive back in the league. The threat of Moss on the outside will draw FS Ryan Clark over the top, and the Patriots will look to get him in space and on the move before the snap.

QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. SS Brandon Meriweather

There's a large talent gap between the Patriots front seven and their secondary. That gap gets increased even more when the Patriots go into their nickel formation. New England only has 22 sacks on the season, and very few of those come from their sub-packages. Knowing that, the Steelers are likely to use even more of their spread and bunch formations to get the Patriots locked in coverage with an extra defensive back on the field.

New England has an inexperienced by opportunistic group in the secondary, led by the second-year safety Meriweather, who is filling in for Rodney Harrison, who's out for the season. With CB Ellis Hobbs questionable, the Patriots are looking pretty thin and potentially vulnerable to the big play. That's all Roethlisberger will need to look for the deep ball, especially considering he hasn't connected on a pass longer than 30 yards in his past two games (a Hines Ward run-after-catch against San Diego).

LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Justin Hartwig, RG Darnell Stapleton vs. Patriots front seven

The front three of Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour is a lot to handle, and backing it up with Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate ILB Jerod Mayo and the explosive OLB Mike Vrabel makes for a stingy run defense. The problem is OLB Adalius Thomas is out, and Seymour and veteran ILB Tedy Bruschi are questionable. Mix in a depleted secondary, much will be asked of the remaining front seven defenders.

Wilfork will be a tough assignment for Hartwig, despite his excellent performance against San Diego's Jamal Williams, another top interior lineman. The Steelers have a match-up advantage against New England in their passing game, provided the offensive line can give Roethlisberger enough time to find an open receiver.

Steelers Unit Patriots   Quarterback x x Running backs     Offensive line x   Wide receivers x x Tight ends     Defensive line x x Linebackers   x Defensive backs     Special teams x

Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.

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