For all the conversation that takes place about coaching and schemes, the reality of the NFL is that sometimes games are won and lost because one team is able to exploit individual matchups and other teams are not.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are hosting the Baltimore ravens this weekend, and while neither team has played up to their billing this year, these teams have some amazing talent on both sides of the football. How each team copes with those stars could decide the outcome of the game.
Here are the five matchups to watch this Sunday. All stats provided by www.pro-football-reference.com.
Center Fernando Velaco against defensive tackle Haloti Ngata
There is very little debate about where Ngata ranks among defensive tackles in the NFL. In his seven seasons, Ngata has been an All-Pro five times, along with four Pro Bowl selections. At 6'4" and 340 pounds, Ngata demands a double on every play, and is a constant disruptive force in the middle of any offense line. The task of containing Ngata will fall on Steelers' center Fernando Velasco.
Velasco is a five-year veteran with 19 career starts under his belt, and his most dubious honor in football was second-team All-SEC in 2007. But, it's not all gloom and doom for the Steelers here. Velasco has played pretty well this year, and goes very hard all the way through the whistle on every play.
It's fairly certain the Steelers are going to give Velasco help on either side from a guard, but there will be times when he is going to have to strap it on and take on the massive Ngata. If the Steelers want to establish any sort of inside running, this is the matchup that will dictate it. I don't expect Velasco to win every one-on-one with Ngata, but he has to win enough to keep the rest of the Ravens defense honest.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs against the Steelers tackles
Going back over the Ravens games this season, it is clear that Suggs is doing his very best to fill the void at talent left by retired linebacker Ray Lewis. Suggs is playing with good health, which makes him even more dangerous as a pass rusher. He has seven sacks already this year, and will look to build on that this Sunday.
This is going to be a supreme challenge for starting tackles Kelving Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. From a strategic standpoint the Steelers are going to have to roll protection to Suggs' side. Chip him with a back or tight end at the snap, and then let the tackles come in and finish the job.
Another way to neutralize Suggs is to run at him with draws and delays. This will force him to play more disciplined football and not allow him to just fire off the ball every snap.
Tight end Heath Miller against safety Matt Elam
The Steelers were very grateful to get Miller back this season, as the passing offense has really improved since his return. His presence forces the defense to defend the middle of the field and allows those speedy outside receivers to run.
This week the task of protecting the middle of the field could fall on rookie safety Matt Elam. Elam is a big hitter and one of the best up-and-coming safeties in the league. While Elam might have an athletic advantage, Miller is one of the smartest players in the league when it comes to finding a way to get open.
If the Ravens don't give Elam help in coverage, Miller could have a field day.
Cornerback Ike Taylor against wide receiver Torrey Smith
All season long, the task of covering the top receiver on the opposing team has fallen on veteran cornerback Ike Taylor. This week, Taylor's draw will be the speedy Torrey Smith. The difference between smith and some of the other receivers Taylor has gone against this year is speed.
Whereas a Brandon Marshall is going to play physical football and use his body to get open, Smith is going to try and get deep in a hurry. A key to winning this matchup will be Taylor's ability to first be physical at the line with Smith, forcing him off his route and slowing him down.
But along with that, Taylor is going to have to tackle well. The Ravens will likely allow Taylor's coverage to dictate Smith's routes. If Taylor plays off, Smith will run short routes, hoping to turn them into long runs. If Taylor can't wrap up, he might not have much help behind him and the Smith could make short throws long gains.
Even though this season has been something of a disappointment for Ravens running back Ray Rice, I still expect the Ravens to try and get him involved early in the offense.
Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu has had a great season, due in part to how they Steelers have used him. In many cases, Polamalu has been operating inside the box, almost functioning as an additional linebacker on plays.
Look for Polamalu to key on Rice on run downs and do his best to keep him from getting on track. Polamalu does a very good job of disrupting plays, and as the defense continues to get more aggressive, Polamalu's role will increase accordingly.
Which matchups do you think favor the Steelers, and will it be enough to pull off the upset?