By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Dallas Cowboys at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS PASS RUSH VS. COWBOYS QB TONY ROMO: In his nine starts, Romo officially has 19 carries for 15 yards rushing, and based on how the early portion of the season went for the Cowboys, a whole bunch of those 19 probably were kneel-downs. But just because Romo doesn't run by definition of the NFL's statistics doesn't mean he's a statue. His mobility in the pocket and in the immediate vicinity of the pocket is something a defense needs to control. "(Mobility) is starting to characterize a lot of quarterbacks in this league, particularly the good ones," said Tomlin. "It seems like every week we have to acknowledge the mobility of the passers that we prepare for. It was the same with (Matt) Cassel a week ago; (Jason) Campbell in Washington; (David) Garrard in Jacksonville. A lot of people have quarterbacks that are capable of extending plays and making plays when things break down. We have a big task this week in terms of Romo. He is unique and maybe different than most because this guy's vision and ability to see the field is not reduced in any way when he starts to move, particularly when he steps up into the pocket." Maintaining the integrity of the pocket while breaking it down is the goal with a guy like Romo, the football version of making him the prey in a Venus fly-trap.
STEELERS OLB JAMES HARRISON VS. COWBOYS LT FLOZELL ADAMS: Flozell Adams is 6-foot-7, 340 pounds, but bigger isn't necessarily better in this particular instance, because exactly what it is that made him a Pro Bowl player is what will be working against him vs. Harrison. Adams is not what scouts refer to as "a knee-bender," which means he plays upright (as does RT Marc Columbo, 6-8, 318) and Harrison is as good at the leverage game as anybody in the NFL. Throughout his football-playing life, Harrison has been measured and weighed and it's a certainty his height – 6-foot – was most often considered a negative. Now, it's part of what makes Harrison a player on the precipice of becoming the Steelers' all-time single-season sack leader. Combining quickness, speed and power, Harrison can get into and under Adams and move him backward on some plays, while being able to complement that by running around him on others. The way tackles respond to such matchups is to hold, and then it's up to the officials to do their jobs.
STEELERS PUNT TEAM VS. ADAM JONES: One of the underrated areas of improvement from last season to this one has been the work of the coverage units. In 2007, it was a problem, but in 2008 it has been a capable complement to a great defense. The Steelers are allowing 4.5 yards per punt return on the season, No. 3 in the NFL, and there have been a lot of contributions from a lot of players to allow that to happen. Anthony Madison leads with 20 special teams tackles, and Keyaron Fox is next at 14. And don't think for a minute that Tomlin doesn't go to James Harrison when he needs a special teams stop because Harrison is third on the team with 11 special teams tackles. This will be Jones' first game back from a suspension, and he is averaging only 5 yards on 16 returns so far this season, but he has a resume. The Cowboys offense is good enough; it doesn't need any help.
STEELERS WRs HINES WARD AND SANTONIO HOLMES VS. COWBOYS CBs TERENCE NEWMAN AND ANTHONY HENRY: This is not the strength of the Dallas defense, not with Newman battling injuries this season – why do you think Jerry Jones was willing to take a chance on Adam Jones in the first place? But cornerback play becomes a whole lot better when paired with the kind of pass rush the Cowboys can generate. That's why it will be important for the Steelers receivers to win their one-on-one matchups to give the passing attack the chance to make some plays.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. COWBOYS QB TONY ROMO: The Steelers schedule has been packed with top-tier teams, which means Roethlisberger has been going against many of the best quarterbacks in football. Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers. This time it's Tony Romo, and for a man as competitive as Roethlisberger it's important to better the other quarterback in the context of winning the game. Roethlisberger has done some nice things during the team's three-game winning streak – completing a high percentage (76.5) against the Chargers, going down-the-field more and throwing a touchdown pass against the Bengals, and then throwing for two touchdowns and handling a wet, slick ball flawlessly against the Patriots. In his three games since returning from the broken pinkie, Romo has passed for 970 yards, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. The winning team in games matching opponents of this caliber typically is the one getting the better of the quarterback play.