Steelers vs. Giants: 9 Things for Pittsburgh Fans to Watch During Week 9

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIOctober 31, 2012

Steelers vs. Giants: 9 Things for Pittsburgh Fans to Watch During Week 9

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    For both the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, the halfway point of the NFL season comes with a sense of optimism. 

    Big Blue's silver trophy was a golden ending to January's playoffs, and their 6-2 record has the G-Men head and shoulders above other NFC East commoners, namely the Cowboys, 'Skins and Eagles.  After all, isn't that the very definition of "giant-ism?"

    In Pittsburgh, the Black and Gold have rebounded from a very blue beginning to 2012, having lost three fourth=quarter leads in their first five games before claiming victory over the Bengals and Redskins. Certainly, the Steelers have shown a steely resolve.

    With a chance to make a statement, both of these squads have been recent powers in their respective conferences, and one or the other has participated in five of the past seven Super Bowls. For the Men of Steel, there is a bull's-eye on the defending champs. Meanwhile, the Giants have a chance to cement their status as Super Bowl front-runners with a win over one of the NFL's most popular franchises.

    Sunday's contest will almost certainly serve as a momentous springboard of success for the victor. Can the Steelers put together a second straight solid road outing and find a way to beat New York at MetLife Stadium?

    Let's focus on nine things that Pittsburgh fans should consider during the premier Week 9 showdown.

Healing from the Storm

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    When Hurricane Sandy destroyed shores, landmarks, homes, livelihoods and—worst of all—lives, it was another sobering reminder for all that life amounts to so much more than a series of downs or distances. Though our allegiances may vary, we are all a part of this human experience together, and in that way it is important that we all come together in support of those who need our help. 

    Keep those impacted by the early week's historic storm in your thoughts and prayers. It isn't every day that images of swaying cranes, destroyed homes and flooded streets dominate reality in New York or New Jersey. 

    Given their location, it's only obvious that bulk Giants fans (and certainly some Steelers fans) have been DRAMATICALLY impacted by Monday's events. 

    Though my heart bleeds Black and Gold, it continues to feel blue for those who have lost so much, particularly a loved one(s). And, though sport is a fickle phenomenon compared with the grander scheme of life and living, it continues to be a great source of healing, a conduit for the disenfranchised back toward some level of normalcy and well-being.

    Football, like other forms of entertainment, helps to facilitate healing. During Sunday's game, be sure to sports your game gear, satisfy your superstitions and make your voice hoarse all in the hope victory. However, as many eastern communities rebuild brick by brick, one act of courage at a time and moment by moment, be sure to be thankful for the many blessings in life, including this great game...

    ...and it's my sincerest hope that the contest is among the first steps for many in turning life's trials and tribulations into comfort and consolation!

Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis vs. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks

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    Plainly stated, a huge key to the game is obvious: containing Giants playmakers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Let's just call that slide opening sentence for what it is: my Captain Obvious moment. 

    Cruz has 52 catches for 650 yards and seven touchdowns, while Nicks continues to play catch up after some lost time earlier in the season. 

    Anybody who witnessed Cruz's 80-yard winning touchdown reception against the Redskins understands that the responsibility for containment of the playmaker doesn't fall exclusively on the corners. The safeties, including Ryan Mundy, must be on high alert against the opportunistic wideout. On the aforementioned play, Cruz found an open spot behind broken safety coverage, resulting in the winning score.

    However, the notable matchups that most fans will be eyeballing pit corner against receiver, Ike Taylor sizing up Cruz and Keenan Lewis battling Hakeem Nicks.

    Both defensive backs have made key plays this season. Taylor has the potential to be about as great a man coverage defender as there is in the game, and Lewis made two key plays on deep throws by Robert Griffin in Week 8.

    Yet, the duo has also struggled in spots. Taylor has seemed out of sorts intermittently, and Keenan Lewis had difficulty in zone coverage during early weeks, as well as tackling. Week 9's pairing presents a huge challenge for both cornerbacks, particularly against a quarterback in Eli Manning who is typically a third-down maestro (like Big Ben himself).

The Week's Marquee Match Is a Rubber Match

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    Ben Roethlisberger. Eli Manning.

    They were both taken in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft, and they've proven to be the two elite passers of their class. The caption shown depicts both men sharing an end-of-game handshake, both starting for revered franchises in their rookie seasons. The Steelers won the first contest between the two courtesy of a 33-30 shootout.

    Modern NFL fandom hypes matchups between the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers to sensationalized degrees, and it seems silly that more attention hasn't been placed on a showdown between the two teams' passers this Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

    One of these two have been in five of the past seven Super Bowls, and they've combined for a 4-1 record with three game-winning fourth quarter drives (all touchdowns).

    Additionally, each boasts a slew of weapons, but furthermore knows how to utilize those skill players.  Men like Cruz, Wallace, Nicks, Brown and Miller have certainly benefited from being targeted by No. 10 or 7.

    In their prime, both quarterbacks are as deadly as they've ever been. The Steel City's gunslinger has been tamed a bit by Todd Haley (his yards per pass down to 7.4), but Big Ben has shown great aplomb with a 101.4 rating and 14 touchdowns. 

    Meanwhile, though Manning's rating is only a hair over 89 and his total numbers are lower than Roethlisberger's stats, Eli ranks among league leaders in passes gaining over 20 yards. He and his receivers have been making big plays all season.

    Did I mention the Giants sport the second most prolific scoring offense in 2012? 

    As the two most successful passers of '04, likening to quarterback comparisons such as 1983's Elway versus Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have a 1-1 record against each other. This marks their rubber match, and it would be foolish not to expect the vast majority of attention to be placed on the two championship signal-callers.

Offensive Line vs. Giants Pass Rushers

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    Murmurings surrounding the Giants defense are typically flattering, particularly as it involves the defensive front. Though the Giants D ranks 23rd and 21st against the pass and run, it still sports a huge challenge to the Steelers offensive line in Week 9.

    The Steelers offensive hogs didn't surrender a sack of Big Ben in Week 9 (Count 'em: zero!), but certainly that has a great deal to do with No. 7's Houdini-like elusiveness in the backfield. It's an honor to watch Roethlisberger sort of pocket magic each passing week.

    The quick rhythm, high percentage passing game implemented by Todd Haley has been executed better each week, such steady improvements surely helping with the declining sack totals against Ben.  Decreasing time in the pocket equates to less time for pass rushers to beat their man, stunt the A-gap, try exotic approaches, or more simply, to get form point A to point B(en).

    Against the Giants, the offensive line, which has been humbled by injuries for many seasons, will have its hands full. While the G-Men have recorded only 21 quarterback sacks this season, short of their high expectations, their front features a scary group of pass-rushers.

    Jason Pierre-Paul unsurprisingly leads the team with 5.5 sacks, while Osi Umenyiora has three quarterback takedowns. Ranking second on the squad, defensive tackle Linval Joseph has met opposing passers four times in the backfield.

    Everyone knows that the moment will come late Sunday afternoon whenever Big Ben and Pierre-Paul stand in the same space of the offensive backfield. Will Roethlisberger work his magic, or moreover, how often will he have to work it?

Can Steelers Running Game Have Another Fine Outing?

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    The Giants run defense has been suspect, surrendering nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per attempt to date in 2012. 

    Meanwhile, the Steelers rushing attack has seemingly found its stride approaching the midway point of the NFL season, and this return to familiarity combined with the overall skill level of the offense has Steelers fans excited for what the team can accomplish late in the season.

    For starters, a Pittsburgh team that can run the ball may not finish with the bulk passing yardage of one that cannot, but the deadly effectiveness per pass by Big Ben is emphatic whenever the team can move on the ground. See the Titans game in 2012 or the last couple of weeks, which have been a return to statistical form for Roethlisberger after a couple of more anemic outings.

    Not coincidentally, those contests were both 100-yard games by Jonathan Dwyer. "Run to pass, run to win!"

    So, can the Steelers rush attack, now seemingly minus the injured (doubtful) Dwyer put up a third straight great game? It would certainly help to stave off a potentially dangerous pass rush, preventing Big Blue from narrowing its focus on No. 7. 

    Dwyer has helped the Steelers to run out the clock in each of the last two weeks, and the offensive line deserves its share of credit for opening up holes not seen earlier in the season.

    Having seen Willie Colon and his peers blocking into the second level recently, my confidence in the team has grown and the pain of losing David DeCastro has dulled... at least, a little bit. 

    Isaac Redman will have the runner's reign this weekend.  Can he keep the positive mojo going?

The Every Game Truism: Stopping the Run

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    Getting a pass rush on Eli Manning and, subsequently, containing the New York passing game is difficult enough, but it becomes almost implausible (if not impossible) if a defense is unable to stop the Giants' running game.

    Ahmad Bradshaw has averaged 4.7 yards per attempt, gaining 570 yards and scoring four touchdowns.  Another threat back is Andre Brown. Though he has only gained 236 yards, his 5.1 yards per rush and five touchdowns on 46 carries mark him as a very effective back per touch.

    Last week, the Steelers did a decent job of stopping Alfred Morris, making plays in the backfield for yardage losses and holding the Redskins' ground game in check. However, much of this success was the result of Washington being forced away from the run due to a sizable second-half deficit.

    To ensure another late-game lead, Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon, "Ziggy" Hood and Brett Keisel will need to win their individual matchups in the trenches, producing a pass rush, clogging rushing lanes and opening lanes for teammates to enter the offensive backfield.

    However, truth be told, in what game isn't the above objective of paramount importance? 

Heath Miller and the Tight Ends Should Be Salivating

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    Make no mistake: Coverage against the tight end will be a hot topic for Tom Couglin's squad entering this week. After all, they're preparing to battle against an offense that is utilizing its tight ends more than ever, namely Heath Miller. Miller is on pace for another Pro Bowl season.

    Oh, by the way...  Jason Witten snagged 18 passes for 167 yards last week! Oh, Heath? Are you salivating?

    Beyond the potential favorable matchup, Miller and Roethlisberger have had a solid connection in 2012, a synergistic—nay, chemical!—bond... or is it magnetism?  Hmmmm.

    Well, however one chooses to describe it, Miller and his fellow tight ends are having a superb season, commanding attention in every game they play. In fact, half of Big Ben's touchdown passes (14) have come to tight ends Miller (6) and Leonard Pope (1).

    On the Steelers roster, only one other player have more than one receiving touchdown. Mike Wallace has found the end zone on four receptions. 

    The role of the tight end in the Pittsburgh offense, both for pass-catching and downfield blocking, has been and will continue to be vital. With so many other weapons at receiver, the tight end position is a clear X-factor that gives opposing defensive coordinators headaches.

    It's almost unfair.

How Suspect Is the Giants Secondary?

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    In terms of total yards surrendered, the Giants defensive backfield and overall pass defense has left a lot to be desired. Certainly, they've given up their share of completions and yardage.

    However, like great teams do, New York has forced turnovers, intercepting 16 passes. The Steelers have intercepted three. Make no mistake, yardage has its role, but volume stats are largely deceptive. Efficiency is the key, and few statistics have more bearing on winning than turnover differential.

    And, I repeat: the Giants have intercepted 16 passes in eight games, a tremendous total. The Steelers, again, have THREE.

    Stevie Brown, Antrel Rolle, Corey Webster and Michael Boley all have multiple interceptions for Big Blue. ("Thanks, Tony Romo.")

    How to rank the performance of the New York pass defense is an interesting case study. It's allowed 11 touchdown passes, over eight yards per attempt (a gaudy average) and a solid completion percentage.

    Yet, it's held opposing passers to an average quarterback rating of 78.1 and plucked the pigskin from their possession at a stunning rate.

    The numbers show a "bend, but don't break" unit, and it will be important that Roethlisberger and "Young Money" force more breaking after the Giants' bending. Yardage will be available and plays will be made, but the Steelers passing game cannot allow volume stats to blind them to more important matters: finishing drives and avoiding key mistakes.

    In fact, the last time these two teams played, the Steelers lost 21-14 at Heinz Field. Eli Manning avoided a single turnover, while Big Ben threw four interceptions. 

A Giant Paranoia: Home Woes and Recent Collapses

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    Maybe it's because certain Giants fans are also Jets fans ("It's a New York thang!") Lord knows Gang Green has seen its share of snakebites. 

    Or, perhaps it is the result of six different 6-2 starts by Big Blue in the Tom Coughlin era, too many of which haven't ended favorably. Remember that before their playoff march and prior to winning on Super Sunday last season, the 6-2 Giants fell to .500 before winning three of their final four regular season games.

    Whatever is the case, fans in New York have their own way of spelling midseason: P-A-R-A-N-O-I-A.

    After a huge win at San Francisco, FOX broadcasters mentioned that many Big Apple fans engaged in "Yeah, but.." syndrome. For example, to paraphrase so many of their fans, "Yeah, but we'll see what happens when they come back home to play the Redskins."

    In a hard-fought victory over Washington, the Giants played before many skeptical fans who felt that the team was liable to lose at home. That's right:

    In recent seasons, New York has been a much more solid ROAD squad. 

    This has also been true of the Tom Coughlin era in general. Consider the Giants in the playoffs, winning as nomads (well, mostly) en route to two Lombardi Trophies but losing at home in the Divisional round (2008-09) and Wild Card game (2005-06).

    Certainly, no one play, quarter, or game will define a midseason slide, but a fast start by the Steelers can plant a seed of doubt as it involves two New York-New Jersey complexes: poor play at home and midseason slumping.

    No matter what, something will have to give as the Steelers haven't exactly been road warriors in recent weeks.