The second week of the NFL season is usually not considered as "Do or Die", and for the Pittsburgh Steelers it can't quite be considered that either. Or can it?
Although it isn't desperation time in the Steel City just yet, Coach Mike Tomlin and his team know the importance of coming away with a win in their home opener against the San Francisco 49ers. A victory is crucial for the black and gold-clad warriors to kickstart their playoff march and refrain from digging themselves into a Casey Hampton-sized hole.
Here are five of the main key matchups to focus on during the 49ers game.
Key Matchup #1
The Steelers Front Seven vs RB Carlos Hyde
Lost among all of the despondent conversation regarding that disastrous, defensive effort against New England, was the promising performance of the Steelers' rush defense. Although they were only matched up against non-dynamos Brandon Bolden and Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh allowed only 80-yards on the ground the entire evening.
However, rolling into town are the San Francisco 49ers. Led by second-year man Carlos Hyde, the men from the Golden Gate State currently boast the best rushing attack in the league. Against Minnesota, Hyde scampered for 168 yards on 26 carries for an average of 6.5 yards-per-carry. Reggie Bush, who injured his calf during the inaugural game, and who will be wearing street clothes for this one, attained eight yards on two carries.
Leading the way for Ohio State's Hyde is, accomplished fullback, Bruce Miller and LT Joe Staley and LG Alex Boone. All three have been mainstays of the rushing attack in recent team history and are key factors in San Fran's rushing dominance.
In order to stop Hyde, the front seven of the Steelers need to clog lanes and swarm towards the ball carrier. The Pittsburgh run stoppers, ranked ninth in the NFL, held Patriot runners to only 3.3 yards-per-carry. Ryan Shazier led the way with seven tackles, while James Harrison and Cam Heyward chipped in with four-a-piece.
Shutting down Hyde puts the onus back on QB Colin Kapernick and forces him to have to take to the air, which is less of a threat than what Tom Brady was a week prior.
The athletic Steelers front seven has the ability to fly to the ball and limit forward progress, if they can accomplish just that, it will be the difference in giving the offense a chance to grind and pound, instead of having to play catch up.
Key Matchup #2
TE Vernon Davis vs ILBs Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and the beleaguered defensive backfield
Rob Gronkowski was the undisputed MVP of last week's game. Gronk took a couple of series to get into the game, but when he did...well, he was nothing short of invincible. This week, Davis and the Niners will look to emulate New England's success and employ the short game to pick apart the home team.
Where the Steelers went wrong last week, was failing to chip and chuck the tight end legally within the first five yards in order to slow him down. They couldn't get any coverage on Gronkowski and he shredded Pittsburgh with five receptions for 94 yards and three touchdowns.
Anchored by Timmons and Shazier, the Steelers defense wiill have a much better chance to shut the west coast 49ers down and control the tempo of the game if they find a way to hold down Davis, who,after a rough 2014, resembled his Pro Bowl-self of the past by collecting three balls for 47 yards against Minnesota.
Tight End Garrett Celek represents danger here also and the Steelers need to be mindful of him also.
Key Matchup #3
WR Antonio Brown vs LCB Tramaine Brock
WR Antonio Brown is the best at his position currently. We all know about his 5 receptions for 50 yards streak over the last 34 games, but Brown represents a force that is very hard for opposing defenders to thwart. His nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown have felt commonplace as of late and despite being doubled-up by defenders, Ben Roethlisberger most definitely has the confidence to look his way at all times.
CB Brock had one interception last week against the Vikings and he and the 49ers must keep Brown in front of them and limit Brown's yards-after the catch. Brock, along with safeties Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid, are not going to stop Brown completely, but swarming to him immediately could keep him from breaking free in the open field and busting the game wide open.
Key Matchup #4
The Steeler Secondary vs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin
It is well documented how bad the Steelers secondary was in Week 1, surrendering 281 yards and 28 points to the Pats. While Colin Kapernick is not Tom Brady, his talent to both run and throw is better than that of the defending champions.
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are no strangers to the Steelers. Both have had success in recent history against Pittsburgh, as both have spent time in Baltimore. In seven career games against Pittsburgh, Boldin has eclipsed four receptions and 65 yards in every game. Anquan's 44 catches for 626 yards and four touchdowns are of concern and he is still a definite threat. Smith has always been able to stretch the Steelers pass defense. Since 2011, the Maryland Terrapin has 25 grabs for 356 yards and four scores over nine games.
The unit of Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and William Gay need to establish good coverage and find a way to keep from getting beat. If not, it will be a long day and notice will be served that the Steelers can be beat at all times by continually exposing this weakness.
Key Matchup #5
K Josh Scobee vs. Steeler Nation
History has taught us that when a place kicker finds himself on the bad side of Steeler Nation, it is awfully hard to win them back. Truthfully, it's not really the fans that Scobee needs to impress, it is his organization that surrendered a sixth round draft pick for him after his two predecessors went down with injuries in the preseason. But not having the ire of the home crowd helps strengthen a kicker's confidence and concentration.
In his Steeler debut, Scobee went just two for four on field goal attempts. He missed his first two from 44 and 46-yards and was good from 24 and 44. Because of his ability to kick the ball through the end zone, the former Jaguar is valuable to the team. He just needs to make sure that they go through the uprights on field goal attempts also.
RB Deangelo Williams vs SF Rush Defense
LB Bud Dupree vs RT Erik Pears
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs QB Colin Kapernick
C Cody Wallace and the O-line vs LB Navarro Bowman
LB Jarvis Jones vs LT Joe Staley
NT Steve McLendon vs C Marcus Martin