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Three Key Matchups: Seahawks at Steelers

Breaking down three matchups that could make the difference in Seattle’s Week 2 game at Pittsburgh. 

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The Seahawks (1-0) head to Pittsburgh this weekend to face the Steelers (0-1), their second straight game against an AFC North opponent. While the Steelers are coming off a blowout loss in England, the Seahawks know their opponent is a formidable one that, if anything, will only be more dangerous because of how they lost last week.

"Pittsburgh stays as a classic team," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "It's Coach (Mike) Tomlin, it's Ben (Roethlisberger), it's his defense, it's just always been the same in that it poses all the problems that you could ever hate to face, and they got it. I know that they didn't get the first game like they wanted to, but I think that just makes them that much more dangerous."

Here are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:

1. Seattle's running game vs. Pittsburgh's front seven.

While the Seahawks were able to escape Week 1 with a 21-20 victory over Cincinnati, one thing they have in common with Pittsburgh is that there were plenty of elements of their play that weren't up to par. Perhaps most notable was Seattle's struggles to run the ball, an issue that played a big role in the Seahawks going just 4 for 12 on third down and going three and out on six possessions. Last season, the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing, averaging 160 yards per game, but in the opener they gained just 72 yards on 25 attempts, a level of production they know won't cut it on the road against a good opponent.

"We wound up in five or six third-and-16's or more," Carroll said. "That's crazy bad football, you can't function like that. When we were in third-and-10 or less, we were 4 for 7 on third down conversions, that's the way we're supposed to be playing football. But stuff added on—a couple penalties, a couple sacks, and you're behind the sticks so far, it's hard to overcome it… We have to be more consistent, we've got to stay ahead of the sticks, we have to be more effective running the ball on early downs. When we didn't make much of the running game early, losing the drive in the first quarter screwed us up a little bit, because we got antsy a little bit."

And again, not much went according to plan for the Steelers last week, but their defense, and in particular their front seven, is always a tough test, especially at Heinz Field.

"They're really big and physical up front," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "If there's three better interior defensive linemen in those guys with (Cameron) Heyward, and the other two guys inside (Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt), they're really big and physical. Two guys on the edge. (T.J.) Watt and (Bud) Dupree, excellent players. They went out and got the rookie who's a really good player, Devin Bush. He fits in there well. The secondary does a nice job disguising some of their coverages. They didn't have a very good game, but I'm sure we'll see the Pittsburgh defense that we're used to seeing. I've played there a number of times. It's a very, very challenging place to play just because it's so loud and the fans get into it. It'll be their home opener. Very, very good test for us up front with that front seven and all the pressure packages and things that they do. A lot of respect for Coach Tomlin and Keith (Butler) the D.C."

2. Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of Seattle's pass rush vs. one of the league's top O-lines.

The Seahawks' defensive line got off to a great start, playing a big role in last week's win over Cincinnati. Recent trade acquisition Jadeveon Clowney got off a strong start, recording his first sack, another tackle for loss, a pass defensed and multiple other disruptive plays that didn't show up on the stat sheet, but he was hardly alone in making big plays. Pittsburgh native Quinton Jefferson had two sacks, two passes defensed and six tackles; Rasheem Green added a game-clinching sack/forced fumble; and veteran defensive tackle Al Woods had a handful of big plays, including a fumble recovery and a fourth-down run stuff, and he also drew a holding call that helped kill a Bengals possession in the red zone. And that promising debut happened without Ziggy Ansah or first-round pick L.J. Collier, both of whom are close to being back, so that group should only get better.

Putting up big numbers against Pittsburgh, however, will be no easy task. While there has been plenty of focus on the skill-position players the Steelers lost, namely running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should still be able to count on strong offensive line play in 2019, with four of five starters returning from last year's team.

Leading the way is center Maurkice Pouncey, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and to his right is four-time Pro-Bowler and Bellevue native David DeCastro, while to Pouncey's left is Ramon Foster, an 11th-year veteran who has started 132 games for the Steelers. Pittsburgh's left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva is a two-time Pro-Bowler, while right tackle Matt Feiler is the least experienced of the bunch, but still a player who started 10 games last season.

That line, combined with Roethlisberger's 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame and his pocket movement, makes getting to the quarterback a real challenge against Pittsburgh. Despite playing from behind all night and attempting 47 passes, Roethlisberger was sacked only once and hit just three times in last week's loss to New England, and last season Pittsburgh gave up just 24 sacks, the fourth fewest in the NFL. 

"They don't really give up too many sacks," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "That's because their O-line is so good, and the other part is because he's really big. I don't know how tall he is but, probably 6-7 or something, I don't know. It's really hard to get him down so, we have to make sure we don't allow him to just sit back there and find the open receivers. We have to do a good job of pressuring him, do a good job of bringing him down."

Seahawks defensive tackle Al Woods knows that group well, having played for the Steelers from 2011 to 2013, then against the Steelers on a couple of occasions while a member of the Titans and Colts.

"They're smart, they're smart football players up front," Woods said. "They know what they've got to get done and they do exactly that. It's key going into the game that we know exactly what we need to do and be very detailed in that."

3. The turnover battle.

Given Carroll's often preached "it's all about the ball" mantra, it was only fitting that the Seahawks' opening victory was clinched by a defensive takeaway, with Rasheem Green knocking the ball out of Andy Dalton's hand and Tre Flowers recovering for a turnover that all but ended the game.

And yes, the Seahawks have enough talent to win in a number of ways this weekend, but one of the single best ways to win in a tough environment is to win the turnover battle, something the Seahawks have done quite often under Carroll. Seattle, which is plus-2 in turnover differential after one game, led the NFL in turnover differential a year ago at plus-15 and committed a league-low 11 turnovers. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was minus-1 in last week's loss, and ranked 28th in turnover differential a year ago at minus-26.

Since Carroll took over in 2010, the Seahawks are 59-13 when winning the turnover battle, including a 22-3 record dating back to the 2016 season, so if there's one way to improve their odds of winning in a tough environment, it's by stealing a possession or two by coming out on the right end of that stat.

The Seahawks and the Steelers will meet this Sunday in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field for the second game of the 2019 season. Take a look back at photos from the past games between the two teams.

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