Football is widely regarded as “The Ultimate Team Game” and to a very large extent that’s true. So much of whether a team wins or loses depends on how its players function as a part of their unit and their team. However, at the micro level — on a play-in, play-out basis — whether or not players are able to win their individual match-ups can be key to the success or failure of a play.
All plays have a number of moving parts, both by design and by necessity, and if any one of those moving parts breaks, then the play can break down completely. The effect is even more pronounced when the match-ups in question involve some of the most important positions on the field.
So with that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a key match-up on the offense and a key match-up on the defense for the Giants.
Andrew Thomas and Cam Flemming vs. T.J. Watt and Budd Dupree
There’s a temptation to just talk about the rookie tackle and one of the top young EDGE players in the NFL. However, we don’t quite know how the Steelers will deploy their bookend pass rushers — last year Dupree typically matched up against left tackles while Watt lined up against right tackles. We should probably expect to see those match-ups more often than not, but we just don’t know for sure right now. And, if we’re being honest, it might not even matter.
The NFL has long since reached the point where both left and right tackle are of equal importance. Defenses across the league are deploying dangerous pass rushing duos and there isn’t a significant divide between pressure from the left or right side of the offense.
Watt certainly looks to be the bigger threat on the field. He is a long, explosively athletic EDGE defender with a refined skill set and a motor that never runs down. T.J. Watt might have come into the NFL as “J.J. Watt’s little brother” but he has emerged as a disruptive force in his own right. Not only did he play a pivotal role in the Steelers leading then NFL in sacks last year, but he also set a franchise record for forced fumbles with 8. Over the last two years, Watt has tied the franchise record for forced fumbles in a two-year span with 14 — to go with 27.5 sacks, 26 tackles for a loss, and 57 quarterback hits.
Dupree has been something of a disappointment for Pittsburgh since being selected 22nd overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. However, he might have finally had his breakthrough performance a year ago with his first double-digit sack season.
Andrew Thomas and Cam Flemming likely have their work cut out for them, both as pass protectors and as run blockers. And those are match-ups which the Giants need to at least stalemate the Steelers. As we’ve all seen over the last few seasons, failures along the offensive line can easily lead to disrupted plays. The Giants are going up against a mature, veteran team and they are going to have to play as clean a game as possible.
The Giants’ number two corner vs. The Steelers’ passing game
This could be the key match-up for the Giants on defense, and we just can’t know what to expect. For one, we don’t know who the Giants will line up opposite James Bradberry on any given play. It could be Corey Ballentine, it could be Isaac Yiadom, it could be Logan Ryan, or it could be someone else — It’s reasonable to expect to see Ballentine out there, but we just don’t know yet.
Adding to the confusion (or at least mystery) is the fact that the Steelers like to move their receivers around the offensive formation. That was true over the last couple years and they will likely do it even more with the addition of TE Eric Ebron and rookie WR Chase Claypool. There have been strong hints that the Steelers will look to play Ebron from a variety of alignments, and Claypool’s blend of massive size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) with 4.42 speed makes him the same kind of match-up nightmare as an athletic hybrid tight end. And we should expect to see them, as well as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington deployed all over the field. And while we should expect that James Bradberry will handle his man, that other match-up could be key. Last year Ballentine had one of the highest target rates of any corner in the NFL, which is a concern when he was also giving up a high completion percentage and four touchdowns while in coverage.
The Giants need to get their money’s worth out of Bradberry, but they also need the player across from him to at least be solid. If the coverage on that side is shaky, the Steelers will find and exploit the match-up.