The astute analysis that follows was penned by Cory Kempema, my college buddy and former blogging partner who somehow became a die-hard Steelers fan while growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

First of all, I would just like to say thank you for beating the Patriots. The last 9 months would have been absolutely unbearable if New England would have completed a perfect season. The entire NFL owes the New York Football Giants a huge debt of gratitude.

I would also like to compliment the Giants on defending their title quite admirably so far this season – it has been much better than the Steelers’ pitiful Super Bowl hangover in 2006. The Giants were obviously underrated before the season started, and I’m sure the lack of respect they’ve seen from the media has helped fire up the locker room. With a 5-1 record and sitting atop the NFC East, the Giants are in excellent position to defend their title. But, after looking at your schedule, I have to say I was a little surprised that your only quality win came against the Redskins in Week One. Now, I understand that there aren’t any easy wins in the NFL, but there is only so much you can know about a team that has been beating teams like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Seattle and San Francisco. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that the Steelers have had a soft schedule as well. They had one good win at Jacksonville, but have amassed their 5-1 record by beating pansies like Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati, not to mention the embarrassing loss to the Eagles.

Nonetheless, the consensus of the various power rankings is that the Steelers and Giants are two of the top three teams in the NFL. With a 4:15 nationally televised game between two 5-1 teams with storied histories, recent Super Bowl championships and two star quarterbacks, this game will be the highlight of the NFL schedule in Week Eight. I think both teams still have something to prove, and Sunday is the perfect time for the world to see how good the Steelers and Giants really are.

The Eli vs. Big Ben rivalry will inevitably be the focal point for the media’s pre-game hype. It’s hard to deny the obvious comparisons: both QBs were taken high in the 2004 draft and both have led their teams to Super Bowl championships during their young careers. However, I don’t think this game will be won or lost by either Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. Both quarterbacks are certainly talented enough to pick apart an opposing defense if given enough time. But, both QBs have also shown a tendency to make bad decisions and bad throws when faced with too much pressure. And, when you have two teams that love to rush the passer as much as the Steelers and Giants, the key to victory will be which team is able to buy their QB enough time operate efficiently.

Both teams are among the best in the NFL at getting to the QB: the Steelers come into Week Eight leading the NFL with 25 sacks; the Giants are not far behind with 21 sacks. Neither the Giants nor Steelers have a great secondary, especially with the Steelers losing CB Bryant McFadden to injury, so the pressure up front is essential to their defensive philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that the methods these two teams use to generate their pass rush could not be more different. The Giants depend mostly on their front four – 18 of their 21 sacks come from defensive linemen. In contrast, the Steelers’ top pass rushers are their outside linebackers, with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley accounting for 8 sacks a piece, and only 2 sacks come from their 3-man defensive line. Woodley is the guy to keep your eye on if you are a Giants fan. In his second year out of Michigan, the converted college DE has turned into a premier edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme, and if the Giants plan on using a TE or RB to stop him, he will make it a very long day for Eli Manning.

The Giants have faced two teams that run the 3-4 defense this season: the Browns and the 49ers. The Giants had no problem with the 49ers defense, and only gave up one sack to Cleveland. Eli did throw 3 interceptions against the Browns, but that may have been primarily due to an off day by Manning rather than pressure by the Cleveland defense. In any case, few teams run the 3-4 defense as effectively as the Steelers, and the zone blitz scheme invented by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is well known to create chaos at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers disguise their blitzes very well, so it is difficult for the offensive linemen to know who to pick up. In addition to Woodley and Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Troy Polamalu and Deshea Townsend are all very capable of sacking the opposing QB, and DE Brett Keisel is athletic enough to be able to drop back and cover like a linebacker.  The Steelers defense has been surprisingly vanilla so far this season, but don’t be surprised if Dick LeBeau finally unleashes some exotic blitz packages against a first-rate offensive line like the Giants.

Speaking of offensive lines, the Steelers’ pass protection sucks. Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times so far in 2008, which is tied for third most in the NFL. Most famously, the Steelers’ offensive line had a complete meltdown against the Eagles, which resulted in 8 sacks. Is a scenario like that possible against the Giants on Sunday? Yes. However, there are a few reasons for optimism for the Steelers. Darnell Stapleton has taken over duties at RG for Kendall Simmons, who is a pussy, with the result being only three sacks given up by Pittsburgh over the past two and a half games. The interior of the Steelers offensive line has now been completely replaced since this time last year, with Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig and Stapleton taking over for Alan Faneca, Sean Mahan and Simmons. It’s still early, but it appears as though the current lineup provides at least marginally better protection than last year’s version, which was one of the worst units in the NFL. The Steelers will also utilize two TE sets frequently as a way to complement their pass and run blocking. I can’t overstate the importance of this game in terms of developing a sense of confidence for the Steelers offensive line. If the Steelers are able to protect Big Ben against the vaunted Giants pass rush, the debacle against the Eagles will be largely dismissed as a fluke. Another game like the one in Philly, however, could be devastating for the Steelers’ hopes this season.

Both teams will also seek to take the pressure off their QB by establishing the running game early. Again, the Steelers and Giants both are among the best ground games in the NFL. Mewelde Moore, the former Viking, has been a very pleasant surprise for the Steelers the last two weeks, rushing for 219 yards and 3 TDs as well as providing a credible receiving threat, against the Jags and Bengals. Moore is a more patient runner than Willie Parker, who has a few big runs each game but also has a tendency to run straight into the backs of his blockers, resulting in negative or zero-yard plays far too often (ask Greg about his unimpressive DVOA). From what I’ve seen of Moore, he seems to have better vision, finding the hole and gliding through it with his superb speed. Dare I say he is even a little Tikiesque in that respect? Moore doesn’t have the same homerun hitting ability as Parker, who turns the corner as well as anyone in the NFL, but he usually nets positive yardage on almost every carry, which is crucial to establishing a ground game. On the injury front, Willie Parker has been nursing a strained MCL, but is scheduled to return against the Giants. However, you should still expect to see plenty of Mewelde Moore on Sunday.

The Giants currently lead the NFL in rushing with 169.7 yards per game thanks to the three-headed monster of Jacobs/Ward/Bradshaw. The Giants have not, however, faced a run defense like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ yet this year. Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are two of the main reasons why the Steelers rarely allow a 100 yard rusher. Hampton is simply a gigantic space-eater in the middle of the D-line, and the Giants will have to block him with two men. Aaron Smith, who is perhaps the most underrated member of the Steelers, has an uncanny ability to shed blockers and move laterally to plug any holes the RB may be trying to squeeze through. Most teams abandon the run against the Steelers, which is a mistake, I think, because throwing every play allows the defense to tee off on the QB, which results in sacks and turnovers.

I predict a low-scoring, hard-hitting game on Sunday. The fact that the game is at Heinz Field would seem to bode well for the Steelers, except for the Giants amazing record on the road. Although inter-conference games are the least important games of the season, this game is pivotal at least to the extent it will affect the psychology of the two teams. If the Steelers’ offense unravels under the pressure of the Giants pass rush, it will be a serious blow to the confidence of the offensive line and Big Ben. And the Giants cannot really afford to lose many games in the ultra-competitive NFC East. Now, the unexpected can always dramatically change the course of the game. Special teams, turnovers, and fluke big plays can easily be the deciding factor in an otherwise even match-up – for example, the Plaxico Burress/Ike Taylor match-up will be intriguing to watch. With that being said, this game will most likely be won or lost in the trenches. In order for the Steelers to win, they must protect Roethlisberger. For the Giants to win, they must get their running game established to take the pressure off Manning. To paraphrase Vito Corleone, good luck to the G-Men, as best as your interests don’t conflict with our interests.