The key matchup: 'Cadillac' vs. Steelers run 'D'
Tampa Bay RB "Cadillac" Williams vs. the Steelers' run defense
The Buccaneers' first pick in 2005 wasted little time in leaving his mark in the NFL by rushing for 434 yards in his first three games, the highest such total in league history. Williams wound up with 1,178 yards and a 4.1 average on 290 carries, as the Bucs turned around a 5-11 record and returned to the playoffs at 11-5. His average has dipped to 3.8 yards this season (183 attempts for 697 yards), and the Bucs are struggling again (3-8), but they remain undefeated when Williams rushes 21 or more times (9-0 overall, 2-0 this season). With rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski still feeling his way, Williams is the established commodity on the Tampa Bay offense.
The Steelers' run defense
The Steelers still haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Edgerrin James of Indianapolis picked up 124 yards on the ground against them Nov. 28, 2005, but last week in Baltimore, the Steelers' run defense sprang a few leaks. Ravens running back Jamal Lewis gouged them for 61 yards on 13 first-half attempts (4.7 a pop), as Baltimore built a 17-0 lead. The Steelers gave up an uncharacteristic 94 yards on the ground overall in the first two quarters, more than they had surrendered in four of their first 10 games, before the Ravens eased up and yanked Lewis from the game in the second half.
Williams, like most backs, heats up as he becomes more involved in a game. Over his brief career, he's averaged 3.0 yards per carry in the first quarter, 3.6 in the second, 4.3 in the third and 5.3 in the fourth. The Steelers' challenge will be to prevent Williams from getting cranked up early and getting himself in a position to inflict damage late. The best way to make Gradkowski uncomfortable and take advantage of his inexperience is to deny him a running game upon which to rely. And the best way to do that is to keep Cadillac contained. That'll be tougher than usual for the Steelers without strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee). EDGE: STEELERS
Ravens return man B.J. Sams didn't dominate the Steelers bringing back punts and kickoffs in last Sunday's 27-0 debacle. Sams managed just six yards on punt returns, in part because the Ravens were flagged three times in such situations and in part because of some short punts. Sams also had just one shot at a kickoff return (30 yards), so at least the special teams were able to exit M&T Bank Stadium with their dignity somewhat intact. EDGE: STEELERS
- By Mike Prisuta