By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the defending champion New York Giants at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS CB IKE TAYLOR VS. GIANTS WR PLAXICO BURRESS: There always has been a lot of drama surrounding Burress, all the way back to him blowing off a scheduled meeting with Bill Cowher at the scouting combine in February 2000. That Burress still is in the NFL and is one of the highest-paid receivers in football speaks volumes about his ability, because there is no way a non-producing problem wide receiver would be tolerated this long. "He is a problem. He's a problem because he's big and he plays big," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He's great after the catch, and he's tough to get on the ground. When he runs those skinny-posts and those balls come out on time, you're a tackler because they're very tough to break-up. If you transition and get there, he uses his body like a rebounder. He's a complete wide receiver, a splash-play guy for them." The biggest splash of Burress' career was the game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLII, and he showed his toughness throughout that stretch run by playing through painful ankle and knee injuries. So far this season, Burress has 25 catches for 341 yards and three touchdowns, and the Steelers can rest assured he will bring his A-game back to Heinz Field for his first meeting against his former team.
STEELERS RUN DEFENSE VS. GIANTS RB BRANDON JACOBS: Typically these matchups focus on individuals, but assigning a single Steelers defender with the responsibility of stopping Jacobs is just unfair. At 6-foot-4, 264 pounds, Jacobs is a taller version of Jerome Bettis, without the nifty feet. "I saw him turn square against the Cleveland Browns and run about three people over from about 8 yards out and get a touchdown early in that game," said Tomlin. "He's got over 500 yards on the season. He's plus-five yards a carry. He's got a nose for the goal line. When he's intent on scoring, he usually does. That is the guy I am worried about as we sit here today." The Steelers defense is filled with guys who love to play the game in a physical fashion, but taking on Jacobs in the upper body is a fool's errand. If there is such a thing as a good way to get him on the ground, it would be with form tackles around his legs, and his lower legs at that.
STEELERS DE AARON SMITH VS. GIANTS RG CHRIS SNEE: The best player on each of their respective units will be tangling throughout the game, and if one guys is able to control the other he'll likely be on the one on the winning team. These battles along the interior of the line of scrimmage, including Casey Hampton and/or Chris Hoke vs. Shaun O'Hara and Brett Keisel vs. Rich Seubert, are going to be critical to controlling the Giants running game. "That is what makes their attack so potent, because when I mentioned their offensive line earlier, they get hats on hats and they sustain blocks," said Tomlin. "So it is very difficult to get (Jacobs) before he gets going. A lot of the times he is long-striding through holes 3 yards (beyond) the line of scrimmage. You got a problem there. That's what makes them a great offense."
STEELERS C JUSTIN HARTWIG VS. GIANTS NT BARRY COFIELD: Productive games from the running attack don't happen if the center is manhandled, and the Steelers will have to be able to run the football, if for no other reason than to make the Giants pass-rushers respect that element of the game. Willie Parker has returned to practice and is expected to start, but the Steelers also figure to administer a heavy dose of Mewelde Moore, based on his contributions in each of the previous two games. Coming into every game they play, the Giants realize they're going without Michael Strahan (retired) and Osi Umenyiora (injured reserve) in their efforts to rush the passer. Unless the Steelers run the football – they'll need 20-plus attempts even if the yardage gained isn't great – protecting Ben Roethlisberger will be very difficult.
STEELERS WR NATE WASHINGTON VS. GIANTS CB KEVIN DOCKERY: Sometimes, big games are decided by guys who play a lot but don't fall into the specific category of "starters" – see, David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII. Washington caught a 50-yard touchdown pass against the Bengals last weekend, and while the degree of difficulty increases significantly against the defending champions, a big play or two from him could change the course of the whole game. "Last year he showed us flashes of being a guy to be reckoned with," said Tomlin about Washington. "He'd step up and have a big game and then three or four weeks later he'd step up and have another big game. I've been personally challenging him to step up and be a guy to be reckoned with every time he steps into a stadium on weekends, and he's embracing that. But more than that, he's doing the things throughout the week to prepare himself to do that."