The Steelers face the Giants on Sunday with high hopes they can knock off the defending Super Bowl champions.
The generally up-and-down Giants have shaken off the inconsistency that's marked their recent seasons and hold a 6-2 record at present while the Steelers are at 4-3 and trying to put together a late-season run that ends with another Super Bowl appearance.
Both teams will have a lot to handle on Sunday. Here's what the Steelers will need to do to pull out the upset victory (the Steelers as underdogs? It's true).
Don't Get Cute on Offense
The New York Giants defense is making opposing offenses pay for their mistakes this year, with 16 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles (and eight recoveries) to their names. At the same time, the Steelers are playing some of their best offensive football in years, with Ben Roethlisberger having thrown just three picks all season and the team fumbling only five times.
This has been accomplished by a more conservative overall offensive approach.
Roethlisberger is throwing fewer deep passes—just 26 this year, as compared to 68 for the entirety of 2011—but is markedly more accurate overall, with an accuracy percentage of 77.4. Fewer risks means a lower chance that they don't pay off, and it's a strategy the Steelers must continue to employ against the Giants on Sunday.
High-percentage throwing has helped the Steelers move the chains, convert more third downs per game than any other team, and have the second-best average time of possession in the league. And it's what's going to help them defeat the Giants and their turnover-generating defense on Sunday.
The temptation is there, for both Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, to make more statement-sending throws, especially against the defending champions. And if the Steelers find themselves in a points deficit, that temptation will likely only grow.
The Steelers must ignore it. Steadily moving the ball down the field limits the amount of time their Giants counterparts have to do the same and will result in more touchdowns and fewer errors than if Roethlisberger went back to his old ways.
In the run game, Jonathan Dwyer, who just had back-to-back games with over 100 rushing yards, will be on the sidelines, dealing with a quadriceps injury. In his place at starter is Isaac Redman, who was out for those two games with an ankle injury. Rashard Mendenhall is still recovering from his Achilles tendon problems, and he won't be playing.
Until the previous two weeks, Dwyer wasn't very productive when he's been asked to carry the ball, but his yards-per-rush average shot upward after the wins over Cincinnati and Washington, all the way to 5.2. Redman is at 2.5 yards per carry and won't likely replicate Dwyer's successes, but he should have a better day than he did earlier in the season.
The offensive line and overall run-blocking has improved vastly from the beginning of the year, helped along by the addition of rookie Mike Adams at right tackle in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. The Giants defense ranks 19th presently against the run, giving up 113 yards per game. The Steelers should be able to capitalize on this, no matter which back gets the most work.
In terms of yardage, the Giants don't have the most impressive defense in the league, but they do know how to generate drive-killing and game-ending turnovers. If the Steelers can stay the course on offense, they shouldn't commit many mistakes for the Giants to take advantage of.
How to Rattle Eli Manning?
No quarterback has been sacked less in the league this year than Eli Manning—just seven times, to be exact. And the Steelers aren't exactly as adept at getting to opposing quarterbacks this season, with just 12 sacks to their name.
So how can they stop Manning from throwing the ball at will on Sunday if sacks are at a very high premium? Good coverage is the key.
The Steelers are the top-ranked passing defense in the NFL at present and opposing quarterbacks are completing an average of just 57.14 percent of their passes. To keep Manning at bay, the Steelers need to keep his receivers well-covered and allow him few options to make plays.
After a disastrous start to his season, cornerback Ike Taylor has bounced back, and Keenan Lewis has looked strong as well, giving up just one touchdown, so far.
Safety Ryan Clark, who is coming off a concussion he sustained last week, has done an excellent job minimizing the impact of the team being without Troy Polamalu, and the coverage linebackers, specifically Lawrence Timmons, has also helped make up for Polamalu's absence.
The Giants have a great number of offensive playmakers—Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Ramses Barden, Martellus Bennett, Ahmad Bradshaw—and a great many ways to make defenses pay. Cutting off enough of them on a play-by-play basis is a good way to keep the Giants from moving down the field and keep Manning frustrated.
Just as the Steelers kept Andy Dalton from throwing deep when they defeated the Bengals in Week 7, they'll need to take the same approach with Manning on Sunday. It might not be the same as getting sacks, but if executed properly, will have the same drive-killing effect.