Typically, an out-of-conference showdown between 6-4 and 5-5 franchises doesn't create too much of a buzz. But look closer and you'll notice that Pittsburgh at Seattle promises to be one of the prime battles of Week 12. This game has it all. Two exciting quarterbacks. A pair of back-up running backs that average over 5.0 yards-per-carry. Quite possibly the best stable of wide receivers going head-to-head with a blockbuster secondary. Two tight ends with great hands in traffic against defenses that struggle against that particular position. The two defensive ends on both sides are playing at a Pro Bowl level. Linebackers galore. Super Bowl-winning coaches. This showcase of stars has it all.
For the first time in months, the Steelers opponents find themselves in more of a must-win situation. Three games behind division-leading Arizona, the Seahawks currently occupy the eighth seed, one game behind sixth-seeded Atlanta for a Wildcard spot. A loss could be devastating to their cause. The crowd in Seattle will be operating at a higher than usual intensity against visitors that they still don't believe fairly beat them in the Super Bowl a decade ago.
The Steelers have gained two-and-a-half games on division-leading Cincinnati in previous weeks. The "Men of Steel" have momentum on their side, but a loss would most likely cease their division-title dreams. They also need to win to remain in contention for the more-than-valuable fifth seed. With Kansas City surging and owning a tie-breaker over them, winning is paramount.
Seattle is a four-point favorite, but home field advantage accounts for most of the points in a very even contest.
Needless to say, this game carries major implications and fascinating subplots. Consider the following matchups as possibly the most vital of matchups for Sunday's game.
Key Matchup #1
WR Antonio Brown vs CB Richard Sheman
Analysis: This is a Grade-A, marquee matchup of epic proportions between two All-Pros who bubble over with self confidence and self promotion. Think Ali-Frazier. Think Hogan-Piper. Even think Donald Trump-Rosie O'Donell.
With 24 interceptions in five seasons, Sherman has been one of the most feared corner patrols that "the Shield" has to offer. Statistically, 2015 indicates a down year for Sherman due to zero interceptions and eight pass-defenses. But it can't be denied that quarterbacks are looking away from #25 and feasting on Cary Williams on the opposite corner. Seattle's penchant for lining up Richard with the best receiver on the opposition makes this showdown with Antonio Brown possible.
In turn, Brown will face his toughest task of 2015. Despite Ben Roethlisberger's absence, AB is still in the midst of a phenomenal season. Brown and Roethlisberger are on a wavelength that at times seems unstoppable. In the last two contests, Antonio has caught 27 passes for 423 of his 1,178 yards. That total accounts for more than a third of his yards. He can kill you all over the field. Brown is dangerous on a wideout screen, in the slot or on the outside, where 66 of his 73 receptions occurred. OC Todd Haley is going to move Antonio all over Century Link Field on Sunday in order to attempt to exploit matchups.
Pete Carroll and the Seahawks know that they need to shadow AB with their best defender, however that leaves a lesser corner (Cary Williams or DeShawn Snead) charged with covering Martavis Bryant. Luckily for them, their second-ranked pass defense includes the best safety duo in the NFL, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Regardless of who covers who, The Killer B's vs the Legion of Boom = Must See TV.
Key Matchup #2
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs S Earl Thomas
Analysis: On a unit full of dominant players, Earl Thomas is the unquestioned heart and soul of the defense. Thomas has seven pass-defenses and three interceptions and truly personifies the hard-hitting reputation that is universally associated with the Seahawks.
When healthy, Roethlisberger is truly elite. Since being sidelined the entire month of October, Ben has averaged 325 yards in his previous three games. His average of 8.94 yards per attempt is only .10 lower than the league leader, Carson Palmer. With the league's leading receiver in Antonio Brown at his disposal, along with Martavis Bryant who averages over 20 ypc and safety-valve Heath Miller, Ben has more weaponru and firepower than most country's militaries. Keep in mind though that the Pittsburgh quarterback sustained a second cart-off this season, a mere three weeks ago. He and his mobility may not be quite 100% against a tenacious defense.
When a high-powered offense knocks heads with a hard-thumping defense, every snap is crucial. This matchup seems most likely to define the day.
Key Matchup #3
S Will Allen vs QB Russell Wilson
Analysis: Two weeks ago against Cleveland's Johnny Football, the Steelers defense (sort of) got a sneak preview of what to expect against Russell Wilson. The two quarterbacks are similar in style and stature, but Wilson is much more of a quarterback than Manziel.
A threat to throw and run, Wilson led his team to the NFC Title in 2013 and 2014. Though there have been hiccups lending to questions regarding a conference three-peat in 2015, Wilson has the ability and the stones to lead the team from the Emerald City on a late-season run. The NC State and Wisconsin product is not too effective as a pocket passer. He is most dangerous making plays with his legs and throwing on the run. Lat week against the Niners, Russell completed all 11 of his passes against the blitz. A leaky line contributes to Wilson constantly being forced to flee the scene.
Wilson also thrives when he doesn't have to carry his team on his shoulders. When the running game is clicking and the defense is on-point, Wilson relaxes and is at his best and the Hawks usually win. In 2015, #3 has 2.378 yards, a 67.5% completion rate and 13 touchdown throws against seven interceptions. With a growing rapport with rookie Tyler Lockett and newcomer Jimmy Graham, the passing game in Seattle is vastly becoming more dangerous. A quick attack from Wilson to his receivers and letting them rack up the yac or dumps to Thomas Rawls could be the perfect plan to escape a potent, Pittsburgh pass-rush.
The passing defense in Pittsburgh ranks very low in the entire league at #28, surrendering an average of 278.4 yards-per-game. The veteran Will Allen has become a quarterback n the secondary and defends well against both the pass and the run. It will take a village to nullify Wilson and Allen will have eyes on the Sehawk signal-caller all day long.
Key Matchup #4
LB Lawrence Timmons vs RB Thomas Rawls
Analysis: Did the Steelers really catch a break here? Marshawn Lynch is the personification of top-shelf. With an excellent blend of outside speed and power between the tackles, when he's in "Beast-Mode", Lynch can control the tempo and dominate a football game. But Lynch will be donning a hospital gown instead of the College Navy, Wolf Grey and Action Green gear of Seattle. Lynch is expected to miss 4 to 6 weeks after undergoing sports hernia surgery on Wednesday.
Subbing for Marshawn is Thomas Rawls, the undrafted rookie from Central Michigan. At 5'9" and 215 bills, Rawls has emulated the speed and power of Lynch, so much that he quite possibly may be cementing himself as his permanent replacement in 2016. Of 39 backfield touches against San Fran, Rawls handled 33 of them for 209 yards rushing and 46 in the air. The dual threat had a touchdown of both varieties. Rawls is the team's rushing leader with 604 yards and 6.0 yards-per-carry. A mild knee injury
caused Rawls to miss some practice time this week, but he is fully expected to play.
Charged with the task of containing Rawls is the front seven of the Steelers led by their top tackler, Lawrence Timmons. "The Law Dog" has 73 takedowns in 2015. At 30, Timmons has been criticized for struggling in a new role that requires more pass-coverage duties. However, #94 always seems to be in the vicinity of the ball carrier and is still a key contributor to a defense that ranks 6th against the rushing attack, allowing 93 yards-per-game and only three TDs on the ground.
Silencing Rawls rushing prowess is vital for a Pittsburgh triumph and it starts with Timmons.
Key Matchup #5
The Steelers Offensive Line vs LDE Cliff Avril and RDE Michael Bennett
Analysis: If you go by where these pass rusher extraordinaires are listed on the depth chart, it would probably be David Decastro on Avril and Bennett drawing Ramon Foster or Al Villanueva. Marcus Gilbert may need to face off with them too. These guys shift around quite a bit in different formations. No matter who draws who, the play of Mike Munchak's men will be a pivotal factor in the outcome of this game. Both Avril and Bennett have 6.5 sacks and can massively disrupt a quarterback's flow and aid the secondary.
Other Notable Key Matchups:
WR Martavis Bryant vs CB Cary Williams or CB DeShawn Snead
RB Deangelo Williams vs MLB Bobby Wagner
CB Antwon Blake vs WR Tyler Lockett
LDE Cam Heyward vs RG JR Sweezy
Steelers Pass Defense vs TE Jimmy Graham