Key Match-ups: Steelers-Chargers

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers.

K Jeff Reed and P Mitch Berger vs. K Nate Kaeding and P Mike Scifres

With the weather conditions not expected to be pleasant, and with two top-notch defenses, any possession ending in a kick is going to be considered successful. The question is, how many of those kicks can be advantageous? Scifres did a phenomenal job last week in balmy conditions, and was a major part in his team's victory. Kaeding has been less than stellar in 40+ yard field goals (3-for-8), but hasn't missed anywhere else this year (24-for-24). One of those misses came in Week 11 at Pittsburgh.

Reed has been clutch for the Steelers this year, hitting 27-of-31, 14-of-16 at home. Berger is the main culprit behind a 36.7 yard net punting average, which is among the lowest in the league. He'll have to be very careful, because even with one of the best coverage units in the league behind him, RB Darren Sproles is an excellent return man, and is a threat to change the course of a game with one return. Considering this looks to be much like the 11-10 game Pittsburgh won in Week 11 in terms of defense, it could come down to one big special teams play.

C Justin Hartwig vs. NT Jamal Williams

This was a key in the first game these teams played – an 11-10 Steelers win in Week 11. Hartwig has come on over the latter portion of the season, handling some of the better 0 and 3 technique tackles in the game. Judging by the way new Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has been able to revitalize their defense, this will probably be Hartwig's biggest challenge yet.

Williams anchored a complex and confusing pressure attack in the Chargers overtime win over Indianapolis in the AFC Wild Card round. He was able to collapse the pocket, and the Chargers had a well-timed and well-placed blitz behind him from another member of the front seven. The key to any Chargers defensive success will be Williams' ability to control the line of scrimmage and penetrate the backfield. If Hartwig cannot prevent this, it will be a long game for the Steelers offense.

OLB LaMarr Woodley vs. RT Jeromey Clary

With the battle between LT Marcus McNeill and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison ensuing, the Steelers will look to exploit the porous right side of the Chargers offensive line. Woodley has been quiet of late in terms of stats; he hasn't registered a sack since Week 13 at New England. But the argument can be made that he's drawing more attention than Harrison is. His size and quickness make him a handful (pun intended) for most backside blockers. He also handles coverage responsibility well, and is a strong open field tackler. This will come into play, because San Diego can break big plays on swing and screen passes.

Clary, a second-year tackle, and McNeill handled the speed of the Colts pass rush last week, but with the variety of different assignments Woodley and Harrison will have, he will have to remain sharp to make sure Rivers jersey stays clean. Woodley disguises his intentions well, and when Clary is faced with him, it will be a mental battle as well as a physical one.

SS Troy Polamalu vs. TE Antonio Gates and RB Darren Sproles

Polamalu's freelancing work around the field is well known. When faced with an opponent with a strong pass-receiving tight end and a solid running game, he has to be careful not to get caught out of place. With Gates and McNeill on the left side, and LG Kris Dielman proving to be one of the best blockers in the league, the Chargers can do a lot of damage on that side. Polamalu will start on that side, and will have to recognize whether the play is coming at him or away from him.

That can be difficult. With Sproles' quickness and Gates' speed, Polamalu will have a very thin margin for error on run blitzes, and judging by the way Gates beat Colts CB Kelvin Hayden off the line for a 30-yard run-and-catch last week, he won't have much any room with Gates either. Rivers has the same problem, because even the slightest indication of where the ball is going can lead to a turnover with the All Pro strong safety on the field.

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