By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Oakland Raiders at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS OLBs JAMES HARRISON AND LaMARR WOODLEY VS. RAIDERS OTs MARIO HENDERSON AND CORNELL GREEN: After a couple of road games, it will be nice for the Steelers to be back at Heinz Field for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the advantage the crowd noise gives when it comes to the pass rush. For the road team, there is no advantage in knowing the snap count, because the noise makes it impossible to hear, and therefore everybody is keying on the movement of the ball. James Harrison might not be getting the same national attention he received last year, but his play has been at the same consistent level as in 2008 when he was voted Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison has 10 sacks on the season already, two in the previous three games. Woodley has been coming on of late in the sack department, with four of the six he has this season coming in the past three games. Coach Mike Tomlin has been emphasizing the importance of takeaways, and the sack/strip is a time-honored way for the Steelers defense to get the football.
STEELERS RB RASHARD MENDENHALL VS. RAIDERS MLB KIRK MORRISON: The Steelers ran the ball 38 times for 153 yards – 4.0 yards a carry – against a Ravens defense that prides itself on stopping the run and knew the Steelers were going to run, because they were starting an inexperienced Dennis Dixon at quarterback. The Steelers ran the ball with Ramon Foster making his first NFL start, at left guard, in place of Chris Kemoeatu. In truth, the Steelers ran the ball well enough vs. the Ravens to win the game. The Raiders are not the Ravens, certainly not when it comes to playing run defense. The Raiders come into the game allowing 161 yards rushing per game along with a 4.6 per carry average, and the allowed 177 rushing yards or more in three of their previous five games. Since taking over the starting job on Oct. 4 when the Steelers hosted San Diego, Rashard Mendenhall has rushed for 749 yards in those eight games on 151 carries (4.96 per carry) with four touchdowns, to go along with 15 catches for another 128 yards and another touchdown as a receiver. When the Steelers began their late-season run to the playoffs in 2005, they did it with a win over the Chicago Bears in which Jerome Bettis rushed for 100 yards in the second half. For that history to repeat itself, maybe the whole of that history really has to repeat itself.
STEELERS KICKOFF COVERAGE VS. RAIDERS KOR JONATHAN HOLLAND: At this point, what with the Steelers having allowed four kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns already this season, this is always a matchup to be feared by Steelers fans. There's been nothing particularly spectacular about Jonathan Holland as a return guy so far this season, but there wasn't anything particularly spectacular about Bernard Scott and Jamaal Charles as return guys until they faced the Steelers either. The revolving door of personnel continued last week for the Steelers. Before heading to Kansas City, Arnold Harrison was cut and Donovan Woods was brought up from the practice squad to bolster the kickoff coverage. Days after Charles brought the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, the Steelers cut Woods and Keiwan Ratliff and signed Rocky Boiman and Corey Ivy. On Wednesday, the Steelers cut Ivy and brought back Anthony Madison, the guy who led them with 25 special teams tackles in 2008. No stone unturned, evidently.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. RAIDERS CB CHRIS JOHNSON: The last time these teams met in the regular season, it was 2006 and Ben Roethlisberger was coming off a concussion sustained in the previous weekend's game vs. Atlanta. Cleared to play, Roethlisberger started and threw four interceptions – two of which were returned for touchdowns – in what ended up being a 20-13 loss. This will be Roethlisberger's first action since sustaining a concussion in overtime vs. the Chiefs, but it's two weeks since the injury this time, as opposed to being the next weekend as it was in 2006. Then as now, Roethlisberger is playing only after being cleared medically to do so, and then as now, the Raiders are going to need some help with turnovers in order to defeat the Steelers. Chris Johnson is a quality cornerback, who tends to see more action since he plays opposite All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha, but he also has held his own in that regard by coming into the game tied with safety Michael Huff for the Raiders team lead in interceptions with three.