Key Match-ups: Steelers-Vikings

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's game between the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the undefeated Minnesota Vikings.

LT Max Starks vs. DE Jared Allen

Allen has been the emotional spark of a dominant defense over the past two seasons in Minnesota. He has a full arsenal of moves, and those are accentuated with incredible speed off the ball. Just limiting him to as little exposure to QB Ben Roethlisberger as possible may be the only thing the Steelers can count on.

The Ravens chipped Allen constantly with an extra tight end and/or running back, and Starks will get help in a similar fashion. Look for rookie TE David Johnson (who got the nod over Matt Spaeth last week) to be called in to do that, but the Steelers are a passing team, and Johnson limits their effectiveness in that phase. If he's not in there, Starks won't have as much help, and he'll have to do what he can to slow down one of the league's best pass rushers.

NT Casey Hampton vs. C Jonathan Sullivan

With the loss of DE Aaron Smith, the Vikings have to feel they have an advantage running the ball. The Vikings typically have an advantage running the ball against anyone, and RB Adrian Peterson leads the league with 618 yards. Hampton's ability to penetrate the backfield, and cut Peterson off, in particular when the Vikings are running to the offensive right, will be instrumental in slowing the violent-running Peterson down.

Sullivan, a rookie replacing six-time Pro Bowl C Matt Birk, played well against Baltimore's Haloti Ngata last week (another elite NT). While Sullivan represents more of a successful system than an elite individual player, he will be counted on to keep Hampton at bay, and more importantly, help keep Pittsburgh's offense off the field. WR Hines Ward vs. CB Benny Sapp

Assuming CB Antoine Winfield does not play (listed as doubtful on the injury report), Sapp will get his first start of the season for Winfield, moving up from his normal nickel back duties. Ward, the NFL's leader in receiving yards, will be in the slot as per usual. Sapp will likely move inside when the Vikings employ an extra defensive back due to the outside speed of Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace.

It's not the ideal match-up for Sapp, and this game is going to be all about both teams' ability to run and pass out of 3-WR sets. Sapp is aggressive and will defend the run, but sticking with the crafty Ward inside the hashes is a tall task for any defensive back, and will likely force the Vikings to drop their linebackers more than they already do. That will help Pittsburgh establish the run.

LOLB LaMarr Woodley vs. RT Phil Loadholt

The third rookie Vikings starter in these match-ups, it's another example of a first-year player doing well within Minnesota's offensive system. Loadholt is more of a road-grading, run-blocking right tackle, but has held his own in pass protection thus far. He gets arguably his biggest threat this season, as Woodley is the size of the standard 4-3 defensive ends Loadholt has gone up against, but the fact Woodley will be standing up and he'll have a step or two of momentum when he collides with him means Loadholt has to be particularly mindful of his balance and footwork.

Woodley's sack totals are down from what was expected of him, but he's getting to the passer consistently. It's not the easiest task in the world against the Vikings. Their offensive line as a whole has surrendered just five sacks in the last three games. Favre has completed 75 percent of his passes in that time. Woodley is going to have to shore up the edge in the run game as well, providing as much support as he can to let ILBs James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons flow to the ball carrier.

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

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