Trying something a little bit new here on this Saturday morning.
In the interest of giving you a little scouting on the Pittsburgh Steelers, I've decided to cobble together a list of four matchups you'll want to watch when the Falcons take the field against one of the AFC's finest teams. This is by no means an authoritative list, but hey, you've come to expect that by now.
The only criteria I'm using here is how likely said matchup is likely to affect the outcome of the game. For example, Rashard Mendenhall could single-handedly waste the Falcons if the defensive line isn't up to snuff. As a matter of fact, that's our first one! Go figure.
After the jump, watch my wizardry.
Rashard Mendenhall vs. Falcons Defensive Line
I don't care what the Steelers coaching staff says. They're riding Mendenhall to the tune of 20-plus carries in this game, and it's critically important the Falcons lock him down on all of them.
Mendenhall isn't a flashy back with a lot of speed. He's not a bruising bowling ball, either. He certainly doesn't catch a lot of passes. That might lead you to take him lightly, but that would be a mistake. He's a very well-rounded back who averaged 4.6 yards a carry last season, and he's capable of breaking off some devastating runs.
While I expect Curtis Lofton to tee off on him, a lot of the Falcons' success will depend on stopping him in the backfield or after a couple of yards. The Steelers will lean on him to set up the pass, and the mobile front four must show up ready to aggressively attack Mendenhall and wrap him up. Trey Lewis in bound to be critical in this matchup, because he's by far our largest and most menacing defensive tackle.
Matt Ryan vs. Steelers Secondary
Wondering which Matt Ryan is going to show up—the debonair man of the air or his evil counterpart, Mr. Dancin' Shoes—is nerve-wracking enough. Putting up with quality cornerbacks and safeties makes it worse.
At the risk of being called a fool by Steelers fans, I think their secondary is actually slightly overrated. They're not exactly a group of ballhawks back there—14 total picks in 2009—and I think some of their shortcomings in coverage are masked by the fact that they play an extremely aggressive, physical style of defense. But they are still good, and they can't be taken lightly. Troy Polamalu and his enormous hair, especially.
To avoid problems, Ryan will have to be accurate. He'll have to avoid locking in on one target, because the Steelers won't hesitate to capitalize. He'll have to keep the defense on their toes by mixing deep passes with short ones. In short, he'll need some help from Mike Mularkey, because use of the short passing game in extended bouts means Ryan runs the risk of tossing the ball right into the Steelers' linebacking corps, which is very, very strong.
That brings us to our next point, incidentally.
Falcon Offensive Line vs. Steelers Pass Rush
The Steelers have a pair of dominant pass rushers in LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. These are guys who know how to get around linemen, and know how to ensure a quarterback doesn't escape their grasp. They're backed up by a very solid supporting cast up front, and they're going to make life difficult for Matty Ice.
We'll need a return to form from the offensive line, which flashed dominant potential at times in 2009. If Ryan can hold up his end of the bargain and make accurate throws quickly, then the line needs to hold up theirs by buying him as much time as possible. Sam Baker and Justin Blalock are going to have their work cut out for them on Ice's blind side, so they're going to have to play with a nasty streak. There are going to be times where Tony Gonzalez and Ovie Mughelli are going to have to chip in, too.
Michael Turner vs. The World
I know, I know, this is a no-brainer. But it's still important.
Just as we must stop Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers must contend with The Burner. Looking a little trimmer and a little faster in 2010, Turner's going to be a serious threat to break one if he gets around the edges, because running into nose tackle Casey Hampton is not a recipe for success.
As good as the Steelers' D is, Turner will be able to flatten their linebackers and secondary if he can get out into space. The key will be hitting the seams hard and hoping to get between the heavy front three and their speedy outside linebackers, something we know he can do. Bonus points, of course, if he trucks over a few people on the way.
If Turner can't get it going, Ryan's game is going to suffer immensely, so look for the Falcons to try to establish him early. Like Mendenhall, he'll get a heavy dose of carries.