Key Match-ups: Steelers-Titans

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

NT Casey Hampton vs. C Kevin Mawae

Mawae has anchored the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing offense, and he and RBs Chris Johnson and LenDale White have helped the Titans score 22 touchdowns on the ground this year. Much of the success the Titans have had this year is the direct result of Mawae's ability to create cutback lanes for their running backers.

In order for AFC Pro Bowl RB Chris Johnson to use his elite speed, the Titans are going to have to reach the Steelers linebackers on the second level. This is far easier said than done. Hampton is one of the best in the game up front, and he will have to use his considerable size advantage to keep Mawae from reaching the Steelers playmaking linebackers.

C Justin Hartwig vs. DTs Jason Jones and Tony Brown

Hartwig has handled some of the better defensive tackles in the league over the past few games – most notably, New England's Vince Wilfork, Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and San Diego's Jamal Williams. The Steelers entire line probably had Tennessee and DT Albert Haynesworth circled on their calendar, but a knee injury in their Week 14 loss to Houston will keep the Pro Bowl tackle out of the game.

Jones and Brown will have to help hold the line of scrimmage in Haynesworth's absence. Defense end Kyle Vanden Bosch will also miss the game, and with DT Kevin Vickerson serving a four-game suspension for violation of the league's steroids policy, line depth is at a premium for the Titans.

WR Hines Ward vs. CB Cortland Finnegan

Ward and Finnegan represent two of the league's most physical players. They are also two of the most common targets of fines from the league. Finnegan was named to his first Pro Bowl in his third season, but was fined $25,000 last week for two hits he laid on Texans QB Matt Schaub. Along with his toughness, he's second in the NFL with five interceptions.

Ward hasn't been fined recently after starting off the year with over $50,000 in league reprisals, but he was crucial in Pittsburgh's AFC North-clinching victory over Baltimore in Week 15. Expect these two to do battle for inside positioning on third downs, but even more importantly, Ward, and Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington as well, need to be cognizant of Finnegan blitzing off the edge. As Shaub saw last week, Finnegan's a load, and QB Ben Roethlisberger isn't going to have much time to get rid of the ball if he's coming.

QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. FS Michael Griffin and SS Chris Hope

Hope, the former Steeler, is excelling in run support for the Titans. Griffin provides a formidable athletic counterpart to patrol the deep secondary. With Tennessee's ability to run the ball, Roethlisberger must be precise when attacking the Titans outside the numbers. One turnover or more gives Tennessee the edge in time of possession their game plan The Titans are second in the NFL with a plus-10 turnover differential margin.

Roethlisberger has put together a game-tying and game-winning drive in the Steelers past two victories, but hasn't completed more than 56 percent of his passes since Week 11. Part of that can be attributed to more than a few drops, but Roethlisberger needs to account for Tennessee's entire dynamic secondary on each snap, or risk wearing out his best weapon – Pittsburgh's defense.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Titans
x Quarterback  
  Running backs x
  Offensive line x
x Wide receivers  
x Tight ends  
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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