|Ravens vs. Steelers: the key matchups|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 15 January 2009 10:58|
When the Ravens have the ball
Some say the Ravens don't want to have the ball much, preferring their dominant defense be on the field wreaking havoc. That was much more true the last time Baltimore made it this far, after the 2000 season, when it annihilated the Giants in the Super Bowl.
But Joe Flacco (5) is no Trent Dilfer. The rookie quarterback can make some big plays, as he did against the Titans last week with long completions to wide receivers Mark Clayton (89) and Derrick Mason (85), and to tight end Todd Heap (86). Unlike Dilfer, he is no caretaker, and is mature far beyond his pro football years.
ackle Jared Gaither (71). These youngsters could form a solid base for the Baltimore offense for a long time.
But what they will face Sunday is a defense just as dynamic and game-controlling as the Ravens' unit. Pittsburgh's secondary, led by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (43) and cornerback Ice Taylor (24), can be extra aggressive because of the players up front.
They range from AP Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (92), Lamar Woodley (56) and James Farer (51) at linebacker to nose tackles Casey Hampton (98) and Chris Hoke (76) and end Aaron Smith (91). Harrison has 16 sacks and always is around the ball.
The Steelers also have depth throughout the 3-4 scheme, of which coordinator Dick LeBeau has an unparalleled mastery. Teams rarely can run on Pittsburgh - Baltimore surely will try with Le'Ron McClain (33), who is battling an ankle injury, and Willis McGahee (23). But the Ravens might need to go airborne more than usual, placing an extra burden on the so-far unflappable Flacco.
When the Steelers have the ball
m in the lineup.
Behind Parker is versatile Mewelde Moore (21), who filled in well when the backfield was ravaged by injuries.
Roethlisberger often holds the ball too long, and he can't do so against the ravenous Ravens: LBs Ray Lewis (52), Bart Scott (57), Jarret Johnson (95) and, if he is recovered from a shoulder issue, LB/DE Terrell Suggs (55), helped by DLs Trevor Pryce (90) and NT Haloti Ngata (92). Baltimore led the league in takeaways and can put pressure on any passer.
That's particularly true against Roethlisberger, whose blockers are inconsistent but have improved significantly over the last month. Big Ben needs big efforts from tackles Willie Colon (74) and Max Starks (78), guards Darnell Stapleton (72) and Chris Kemoeatu (68), in order to find WRs Hines Ward (86) - public enemy No. 1 in Baltimore - Santonio Holmes (10) and TE Heath Miller (83). Miller was particularly effective vs. San Diego.
The juiciest matchups will occur whenever All-Pro safety Ed Reed (20) is near the action, which means nearly all the time. Reed led the league with nine interceptions and had two more, one returned for a TD, in the wild-card win over Miami. He is the wiliest of defenders and must always be accounted for.
has a thigh problem. But it's good enough.
Holmes' punt return for a score got the Steelers right back into last weekend's game with San Diego. He is prone to bobbles and some bad decisions, but is also prone to breaking long runbacks.
The Steelers are mediocre on kickoff returns, but their coverage units are superb on all kicks. Placekicker Jeff Reed (3), just like Ravens counterpart Matt Stover (3), is playoff-tested and quite comfortable in tricky Heinz Field.
If matters are settled by a late field goal, both coaches will be comfortable with their guy.
The Ravens might have an edge with punter Sam Koch (4) over Pittsburgh's Mitch Berger (17), though Berger is averaging 44.4 yards over his last three games. And Baltimore also is very stingy in punt coverage.
Baltimore's John Harbaugh is a rookie head coach. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is in his second season at the helm.
Yet both are ready to be considered among the league's elite minds and motivators.
ely, and has steadily given his quarterback more leeway - albeit not nearly what Roethlisberger enjoys.
The Ravens make very few costly mistakes. Tomlin's Steelers aren't quite so efficient, but they make more big plays on offense, and they aren't afraid of coming from behind. Roethlisberger has led five comeback victories in the fourth quarter this season, two against Baltimore.
Tomlin, like Harbaugh, was not an early favorite to get his current job, but he's clearly established this as his team, not a bunch of holdovers from the brilliant Bill Cowher regime. A disciple of the 4-3 defense, he stood behind LeBeau and the 3-4 because that's the best scheme for the talent on hand, and it's paid off in consecutive AFC North crowns.
Pittsburgh twice beat Baltimore this season, by a total of seven points, one game in overtime after trailing in both games. Beating your fiercest rival three times in a season is as difficult a chore as any in sports.
The Ravens also are comfortable on the road, having won in Miami and in Nashville this month. They don't fear the Steelers - or anybody else.
Nor does Pittsburgh have any reason to fear an opponent. The core of the current roster won a Super Bowl after the 2005 season in much the same manner the Ravens are attempting to do it, as a No. 6 seed.
me will be physical, nasty and loud - perhaps tauntingly so.