Friday, November 2, 2012

Steelers vs Giants Is Absolute 'Marquee Matchup'

On September 20, 1933 the Pittsburgh Steelers, then the Pirates, were born. They were manhandled in their inaugural game at Forbes Field by the New York Giants, 23-2. In what is the oldest rivalry the Steelers have via length of time, the two teams would go on to meet 77 more times (Giants leading 46-29-3) and again this Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

The game features possibly the best quarterback matchup the NFL will see this season: the Steelers Big Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants Eli Manning. Both quarterbacks are in their prime and look to give the fans what has been billed as "one of the marquee quarterback matchups ever." -

There have only been six previous meetings ever between two quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings.

Even their teammates recognize the weight of this weekend's elite pairing.

"Maybe (Nos.) 1 and 2 quarterbacks in the league when it comes down to 4th quarter, two, three minutes left...two of the best in the business," said Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace.

He made sure to finish off his assessment by saying, "I'm gonna ride with my guy, No. 7, everyday."

Wallace, whom we'll highlight later, is right in having such confidence in his quarterback, but both QBs are capable of taking over the game.

Each future Hall of Fame quarterback boasts gaudy numbers with Big Ben having a 101.4 QB Rating and Eli manning (no pun intended) the NFL's 2nd-most prolific offense.

Each has talented wide receivers and tight ends.

Each has the ability to scare defenses with their ice-water-in-their-veins fourth-quarter prowess.

Each has an offensive line that is adequately protecting them this season. The Giants have only given up seven sacks, six against Eli, and the Steelers offensive line has given up 12, but only 11 against Big Ben with four being giveaways.

This Steelers team in particular, though, will go where Big Ben takes them. They don't have the dominant defense they've had in previous years, nor do they have the running game they've had in the past.

This team, Sunday and this season, lives and dies with its quarterback.

And that's just fine with Big Ben.

Ben has been open about wanting to be the best QB on the field each Sunday. Though he has great respect for Eli, he hasn't forgotten being passed over and being picked 11th-after Eli and Philip Rivers.

He hasn't forgotten either that he lost to both Mannings in the 2008 season. He doesn't want to repeat that.

Ben is definitely focused this season and it shows in his play. He's led the offense to 29 splash/explosive plays through the air so far this season and has thrown 14 touchdown passes in a pretty good "dink and dunk" offense. -

Not only Big Ben, but others on the team have been commenting on how well the offense is starting to click.

"Right now, we're clicking on all cylinders and it looks really good," said Emmanuel Sanders.

Max Starks also said that he can tell that Todd Haley is getting increasingly comfortable with the Steelers personnel as the season goes forward.

It comes at a good time ,too, because the Steelers are facing a defense that's hurting.

The Steelers may be down a couple of running backs, neither Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) nor Jonathan Dwyer (quad) will play, but the Giants linebacker corps is hurting as well.

Chase Blackburn and Jacquian Williams are out, and Keith Rivers is doubtful for Sunday. That means Mark Herzlich now will get the start at middle linebacker for the Giants.

Isaac Redman will get the start Sunday, but don't discount the Steelers running game. Not only are the Giants hurting badly, but Todd Haley's "dumbing-down" of the run game has been a success and could continue to be Sunday. -

Speaking of hurting badly, the Giants are also dealing with injuries to free safety Kenny Phillips (questionable) and strong safety Antrel Rolle (probable).

That might mean a lot of Big Nickel and/or Dime packages from the Giants to offset their ailments. Given that their cornerbacks have shown themselves to be very inconsistent, such an approach would be expected.

Prince Amukamara and Corey Webster both have been victimized lately. Amukamara was especially targeted against the Cowboys as Dallas was within a knuckle of beating the Giants last week.

As Mike Wallace pointed out earlier this week, "Yeah, they give up a lot of yards, but at the same time they have guys who take the ball away a lot."

He speaks the truth. The Giants are 24th in the NFL in yards allowed, 26th in passing yards, have given up approximately seven touchdowns of 25 yards or more and have allowed 35 pass plays of 20 yards or more.

Yet, their defense has 16 interceptions. By contrast, the Steelers have three.

A big part of that for the Giants is Stevie Brown, who has five interceptions and two fumble recoveries leading the league in takeaways. -

Wallace went on to reveal the main reason the Giants remain a formidable defensive opponent: "They have probably the best defensive front in football."

The Giants' front four is as good at getting to the quarterback as nearly anyone. They have 21 sacks on the season with 16.5 coming from the defensive linemen. Jason Pierre-Paul leads them with 5.5 sacks.

They are long, athletic and scary...and interchangeable. It isn't Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyiora who is second in sacks, but Linval Joseph with four.

Speaking of Justin Tuck and his one-sack season thus far, he made some comments claiming that the Steelers hold all the time. This is what he had to say:

The Steelers will need to double-team, chip with a running back and Ben will need to get the ball out of his hands quicker via shorter drops in order to keep their pass rush at bay.

Like David Todd of ESPN 970 said on his personal Twitter (@DavidMTodd) account, "This, maybe more than any other week, is a week when people should be happy that Haley is #Steelers offensive coordinator. #checkdown"

Speaking back on Wallace and in his defense for a moment, Todd also brought up a very salient stat regarding the wide receiver.

Wallace has been receiving his share of flack for his drops this season, but Todd made pointed that the fans, If It Ain't Steel inclusive, have overreacted a bit.

"What does this group of WRs have in common? Decker, Megatron, B. Lloyd, Victor Cruz, A. Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Maclin, Dez Bryant? .... They all have a higher drop rate than Mike Wallace. #onebadgame #Steelers"

"One bad game" is right. Wallace had only one recorded drop prior to the three-drop performance against the Bengals. He also ahead of last season's pace for drops. He's getting better at catching with his hands instead of letting the ball hit his body first.

What else is that Wallace is on pace for a season of 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns. "Tha Kidd" has the speed threat that keeps defenses honest (read: "that scares defenses sh**less), and which is why there tends to be so much room underneath.

Defenses have to decide whether they want to chance letting Wallace get them deep, or to be 'dinked and dunked' by Heath Miller, Antonio Brown or Manny Sanders.

All-in-all, Wallace is adjusting nicely and "happily" in the new offense. -

Big Ben can accommodate either of those approaches, as he's basically been in a 'pick your poison' mode and Heath Miller in particular has benefited. The underrated tight end is finally seeing the end zone this season. -

It wouldn't even be a stretch to say that Miller is probably the one player who absolutely doesn't miss Bruce Arians. Haley mentioned Miller as soon as he was introduced in the offseason and he has put his money where his mouth is. -

The other quarterback on the field Sunday has a plethora of weapons as well and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin praised him accordingly. -

Eli ranks among the league leaders in accuracy and splash/explosive plays, as the Giants also have 29 such plays. Eli loves the deep ball and Victor Cruz is a big part of that.

Cruz has 52 catches for 650 yards and seven touchdowns. Hakeem Nicks hasn't been quite as effective, but is still dangerous.

In their base offense, the Giants will use the fullback, Henry Hynoski, and try to establish the run to make use of the play-action, but can just as easily go three-wide.

When in a three wide receiver set, expect to see Cruz in the slot and Nicks and Domenik Hixon on the outside. The coverage should show Ike Taylor on Cruz most of the game, even in the slot, and Keenan Lewis on Nicks.

The key to keeping Eli from gashing them and to keep Cruz from doing the Salsa too much, is a pass rush. That means Dick Lebeau has to have his unit ready and trusting one another in order to increase their 12 sacks so far this season. -

This isn't something the Steelers have shown the ability to do. In fact, as seen in the Coordinator's Corner video link above, LeBeau realizes that splash plays are important and have been missing. For instance, 77 of the 234 points that the Giants have scored this season have come off of turnovers. In contrast, the Steelers have just 18 points off of turnovers this year.

It's a bit of a cliche, but turnovers and sacks can be the difference in this game. With the quarterbacks, offenses and defenses being fairly even (though, the Steelers' D is better statistically), it may just come down to such splash plays. Force them into turnovers and limit your own. -

In years to come we may be able to look at this game and appreciate this game as something more than it was. For now, though, all either team is truly concerned with is getting out of the Meadowlands with a victory and moving themselves closer toward gelling and peaking at the right time in order to be ready for that all-important playoff birth.

Also, can the Steelers road win become a trend? The Giants aren't exactly the best team at home over the last few years (2007-2011) with only a 24-16 home record. It could be the salve the Steelers need.

Regardless of all considered, this marquee quarterback matchup may be a precursor to something later down the line, or it may just be a great Sunday afternoon game. Either way, the one who has the ball in his hands lastly just may be the one walking out of MetLife with that victory.