As dramatic as it sounds for merely the fifth National Football League contest of the year, Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed what could possibly be labeled as a season-defining victory under the bright lights of a
Monday Night in San Diego. Opinions seemed to differ, but escaping California with a win was crucial to the team's playoff prospects moving forward.
Lose and you are wallowing at 2-3, three games short of Cincinnati in the AFC North. Win and you keep pace. But emerge the victors in such an astounding and dramatic fashion when all statistics and sensibilities point to your opponent as the team that should win, you gain so much more...hope, confidence, swagger and a hint of destiny.
Coming off of a dramatic conclusion in your favor like the 24-20 vanquishing of the Chargers, a let down seems inevitable. Against the visiting Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Steelers need to parlay their good fortune into something much more than temporary.
Their are a ton of compelling storylines that surround Bruce Arians rolling into a town where he won two Championship Rings as an assistant before unceremoniously being advised to "not let the door hit him where the good Lord split him".
Arians reenters that door armed with a high-powered offense and a stout defense. At 4-1, the road Cards are favorites in this game. But the Steelers have shown the guts to compete. Here are a few of the key matchups that will help define this game.
Key Matchup #1
QB Mike Vick vs QB Carson Palmer
The Steelers need to let Mike Vick be Mike Vick this week. It took him until the final quarter of the San Diego game to take the reigns of the offense. While his numbers have been below average at best, Vick essentially is one made-field goal from being 2-0. If Vick mixes trying to become more of a threat with his legs with throwing downfield, he can give Arizona more to worry about.
Palmer has turned-back-the-clock and looks like he should be wearing tiger stripes again. The former #1 overall pick has reemerged in the Valley of the Sun and has completed 64.9% of his passes for 1,316 yards, 13 TDs and only three interceptions. With Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and David Johnson to throw to, the Cardinals rank first in the NFL with an average of 38 points scored-per-game.
The Steelers are the 18th ranked overall defense, but have been gelling and growing together as a unit. Against Palmer and a high-powered offense, they need to be on-point.
As far as Vick goes, innovation and playing to win and not to lose is the key.
Key Matchup #2
WR Antonio Brown vs CB Patrick Peterson
Brown is frustrated and hasn't been getting the ball with Mike Vick behind center because of the double coverage that he draws. Despite his receiver getting double-teamed, Ben knew that he could still take the risk and succeed. Vick, instead, has been looking for the most-open man. That is why Brown's targets have been cut in more-than-half since the Roethlisberger injury, from 35 to 16.
Despite only catching eight balls from Vick for 87 yards, Antonio still needs to be covered by the oppositions top cover-corner. In this case, it's Patrick Peterson. Peterson has two pickoffs so far this season and will be stuck on Brown in the manner that Jason Verrett was last week.
Brown has asked Vick to trust him. If he makes a concerted effort to find #84, an All-Pro battle could commence.
Key Matchup #3
RB Le'Veon Bell vs ILB Kevin Minter and ILB/SS Deonne Buchanan
Bell has become the bell cow of the Steelers. Because his suspension cost him the first two games of the season, he is ranked 16th in rushing with 303 yards. However, his average of 101.3 yards-per-game ranks him third in the league.
The top two candidates to stop him are Minter and Buchanan. These men lead a rushing defense that ranks 11th in the entire league, allowing only 97.2 ypg. At inside linebacker, Minter has 30 tackles. Buchanan, who plays all over the field, leads the team with 35.
Bell, who some reason has nicknamed himself "Juice", is running as fluid and powerful as another infamous runner to sport that nickname. The Steelers are going to design a game plan to make sure the juice gets loose. However, this unheralded duo of run stoppers are poised enough to spill him.
Key Matchup #4
RCB Antwon Blake vs WR Larry Fitzgerald
It's hard to believe that this is the first regular season appearance at Heinz Field for Larry Fitzgerald since 2003, when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist for Pitt. 12 years later, Fitz is still more than capable of breaking a game wide open. With 35 catches for 490 yards and six touchdowns, Larry needs stopped for the Steelers to have any chance.
Blake, who had a crucial pick-six last week, will most likely go head-to-head with Fitzgerald. But Ross Cockrell and Will Gay could be matched up with #11 too.
The Steeler defensive backfield is playing with confidence right now and have raised the pass defense ranking to 20th, allowing 257 ypg. But facing an offense that has an average of 265.2 ypg and 38 points-per-game, the backfield will face their biggest challenge to date.
Key Matchup #5
ROLB Jarvis Jones vs LT Jared Veldheer
Jarvis Jones hasn't completely shed the bust label yet, but look closer and see that the former first-rounder is starting to come into his own. Although Jarvis only racked up his first sack on Monday, Jones has shown steady improvement and is warranting more snaps. His 14 tackles have come sharing time with James Harrison, who has 18. Combine those two and the ROLB position is getting solid production.
Veldheer, who came over from the Raiders, will have to deal with both pass rushers. The big left tackle has a hulking presence at 6'8" and 321 pounds and has been a key factor in the health and safety of Carson Palmer.
Jones will need to employ speed and agility to get past Veldheer. This has the potential to be a good show on the left side.
Other Notable Matchups
LDE Stephon Tuitt vs RG Johnathan Cooper
ILB Lawrence Timmons vs RB Chris Johnson