Key Match-ups: Steelers-Cowboys

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

NT Casey Hampton vs. C Andre Gurode

Hampton hasn't faced a center with Gurode's ability yet this year. Gurode hasn't faced as tough of a nose tackle either. This match-up is two of the game's best, and it will be a prime battle for ownership of the line of scrimmage. Gurode is both a tactician and a mauler. With the Cowboys possibly down RB Marion Barber (dislocated right pinkie toe), Gurode's ability to keep Hampton on his side of the line will be critical for the Cowboys if they wish to suck in the Steelers defenders and open up their explosive passing game.

The penetration Hampton gets is a big part of how the Steelers have been stopping the run games of their opponents at a record pace this season. He blew up Dan Koppen of the Patriots last week on a nasty bull-rush which resulted in a sack, but New England was able to gash the Steelers for a few longer runs. With rookie Tashard Choice in the backfield for Dallas, and not Felix Jones or potentially Barber, the Cowboys will need to neutralize the Steelers from the middle out if they wish to have any kind of advantage in time of possession.

SS Troy Polamalu and LB Lawrence Timmons vs. TE Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett

Witten is one of the game's best all-around tight ends. He blocks well and can own the seam down the field in the passing game. He's been battling injuries, but was able to grab nine catches and 115 yards last week against Seattle. His versatility creates headaches for defensive coordinators, and he has the ability to keep Defensive Player of the Year candidate Polamalu occupied. Witten will have a partner in the red zone, too. Martellus Bennett has four touchdowns – fourth in the NFL among tight ends. Three of those have come in the Cowboys past three games.

In situations where the Steelers want to use Polamalu outside the box, Timmons could be called on to help with Witten. Timmons has few rivals athletically, and is coming into his own in pass coverage. His quickness (but not stamina) was displayed in an 89-yard interception return in last week's 33-10 win over New England. Look for the Cowboys to call for Witten if Timmons is on him.

CB Ike Taylor vs. WR Terrell Owens

Owens whined for the ball before the Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game against Seattle, and he got it. Five catches, 98 yards and a touchdown, Dallas used Owens in steady doses, keeping him shorter than his 15.7 yards per catch this year would indicate. With less emphasis on their running game a likely decision for Dallas, they will look to get Owens the ball in space on quick slants and skinny posts, not risking letting QB Tony Romo take many seven-step drops due to Pittsburgh's intense pass rush.

Taylor has, at times in his career, shadowed the Steelers opponent's best wide receiver. With the return of Bryant McFadden and the strong play of second-year CB William Gay, Taylor may be locked on Owens. He needs 13 yards to pass Cris Carter (13,899) for 6th on the all-time receiving yards list, and 17 yards to pass James Lofton for 5th place.

LT Max Starks vs. ROLB DeMarcus Ware

Ware is one of the best defensive players in the game, and if the Steelers plan to control the clock in a poor weather game, they're going to have to get a top-end performance from Starks. Ware has been shut out of the sack category once this year – Week 8 vs. Tampa Bay – and has six sacks in the Cowboys past three games.

Starks is part of an offensive line that has only allowed one sack in the Steelers past two games. This is due in part to a more precision approach in their pass protection, but also, QB Ben Roethlisberger's decision-making. The line is giving him the openings he needs to make quick reads and get rid of the ball. That will be paramount Sunday, as Ware is a relentless pass rusher, and is as difficult to stop as any in the game.

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

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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