By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night at Heinz Field in an AFC Wild Card Game:
STEELERS WR SANTONIO HOLMES VS. JAGUARS CB RASHEAN MATHIS: There are a lot of things about the first game the Steelers understand they must change in order to have a chance to win the rematch, and one of those things is getting the ball to Holmes down the field. At one time this season, Holmes led the AFC in yards-per-catch among all players with enough receptions to qualify, but against the Jaguars he caught only four balls for 34 total yards. A starter since arriving as a No. 2 draft pick in 2003, Mathis posted 20 interceptions in his first four NFL seasons, including eight in 2006. This year, opponents have quit throwing at his side of the field, and the Jaguars used Mathis to match up with Holmes often. Mathis is a fine player – big and athletic with good ball skills, and like a lot of guys with his ability he will gamble and jump routes. Regardless of the weather conditions, the Steelers must stretch the Jaguars defense and make it defend all areas of the field.
STEELERS LT TRAI ESSEX VS. JAGUARS DE PAUL SPICER: This is the way it'll look to start the game, but the Jaguars will move their defensive ends around, and so Essex also could line up against Ben Hawkins and Reggie Hayward. No matter which opponent is opposite him, Essex could give himself his best chance to succeed by being the aggressor, especially in pass protection. Spicer and Hayward are veterans who have many pass-rush moves they cal call upon, and Hawkins had a couple of sacks against an injured Marvel Smith in the first meeting. If Essex would be aggressive and get his hands on the defensive end at the snap, he would prevent him from being able to get into his bag of tricks. This will be Essex's fifth career start and first since the 2005 season when he held his own down the stretch of the regular season. Essex played against Dwight Freeney in the RCA Dome, and that should have prepared him for a lot of what he'll face this Saturday.
STEELERS ILBs LARRY FOOTE AND JAMES FARRIOR VS. JAGUARS RB FRED TAYLOR: Everybody knows how the Jaguars rushed for 224 yards against the Steelers at Heinz Field on Dec. 16, and everybody remembers Taylor's considerable role in making that happen. The Steelers inside linebackers are supposed to operate as a tandem, and they cannot get out of rhythm with each other. In the first game, Foote often over-pursued the play, which opened up the cut-back lanes that Taylor loves, which cannot happen as often in the rematch. Also, Foote and Farrior will have to do a better job of reading the play and getting to the point of attack, but they cannot try to accomplish that by running around blocks, because Taylor reads that very well.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. JAGUARS QB DAVID GARRARD: If the Steelers are going to be more than a one-and-done in this tournament, they'll need to play the kind of game they did against the Indianapolis Colts in 2005. Not so much in terms of a specific style of play, but in terms of getting off to a quick start on offense to put pressure on the Jaguars offense, specifically quarterback David Garrard. Garrard threw only three interceptions in his first season as a starter, but against the Steelers, he forced about six passes that could've been intercepted if the Steelers simply caught the ball. Back in 2005, the Steelers scored early and took the game to Peyton Manning by being aggressive with Roethlisberger early. The Steelers beat the Colts and Manning that day, and Garrard has nowhere near the playoff experience of a Peyton Manning.