Ravens at Steelers III: AFC Championship Game Preview

The Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers in the AFC Championship game and a trip to Super Bowl XLIII (Sunday, 6:30pm ET).

BR.com gives you everything you need to know about Baltimore's AFC North rival. * *

Rankings

Total Offense - 22 (311.9)   Total Defense - 1 (237.2)

Rush Offense - 23 (105.6)   Rush Defense - 2 (80.3)

Pass Offense - 17 (206.3)   Pass Defense - 1 (156.9)

Points Per Game - 20 (21.7)   Points Per Game - 1 (13.9)

Sizing Them Up

After losing the first two contests with the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, the Ravens head to Heinz Field yet again for Round III of this heavyweight battle.

And, just at the moment when the Ravens are nursing their many wounds (Baltimore's 64 games lost by starters this year is by far the most of any playoff team), Pittsburgh seems to be getting healthier.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked to have recovered well after suffering a concussion in the regular-season finale. Last week in the Steelers' snowy playoff opener against the San Diego Chargers, Roethlisberger completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown.

That score went to talented tight end Heath Miller, who missed two games earlier this year with an ankle injury. In 2008, Miller had a career-best 48 catches for 514 yards.

But the players that really get the job done through the air are wideouts Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. In his 11th season, Ward is still one of the elite receivers in the game, and his physical presence is one that keeps defenders aware of where he is at all times. Ward posted two 100-yard receiving games in Weeks 15 - against the Ravens - and 16, giving him 20 for his career.

A national audience saw Holmes' ability to make electrifying plays last Sunday when he took a punt 67 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Running back Willie Parker keeps Pittsburgh's ground game humming. Parker finished 2008 with 791 rushing yards on 210 attempts, but that number was skewed considering that he missed five mid-season contests with a knee injury. A former Pro Bowler, Parker is as fast as they come.

Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. Up front, 325-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton clogs the middle, while outside linebackers James Harrison, the NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year, and LaMarr Woodley are prolific in rushing the passer. The duo combined for 27 this year, and even notched three between them on San Diego.

In the secondary, the Steelers have perennial Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu patrolling the back end. Polamalu led the team with seven interceptions.  

What's Up?

Gerry Dulac of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazettewrites about the intensity of this Steelers - Ravens rivalry.

"It is not easy to find a rivalry in the National Football League to compare to the combustible one between the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, a modern-day tete-a-tete that could amp to another contentious level when the two teams from the AFC North meet at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field."

The Post-Gazette's Chuck Findersays wideout Santonio Holmes has a spotlight on him, especially after the controversial touchdown he scored in the final minute of the last meeting between these teams.

*"Yes, he reiterated, he did know at the time where he stood, on the precipice of the end zone. He made the reception moving forward for a reason, too."

"Hentrich said he was dropping the ball down and inside, causing a number of shanked punts. He said he corrected the flaw during the regular-season finale at Indianapolis and has continued to work on it."*

Mark Viera writes in The Washington Post  that Parker is back on track.

"By rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-24 win last Sunday against the Chargers, Parker outran the injuries and inconsistencies that have nagged him this season."

Awards

Offensive – Ward is doing his best to rile up the Ravens by being mouthy in the press about how much the opponents "hate" each other. Still, there is a reason he can be the mouthpiece of the offense. Ward led the team with 81 receptions for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns this year. Ward's blocking ability also makes him a dangerous weapon when a teammate get the ball.

Defensive – Harrison deservedly earned the Defensive P.O.Y. honor, even though Baltimore's Ed Reed would have been another worthy candidate. In 15 games, he set a team record with 16 sacks and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles. Harrison was also the Steelers' MVP, the second straight year he's garnered that distinction.

Emerging Star

Cornerback William Gay, in his second year, made four straight starts in 2008 and tied for second on the team with 11 pass breakups. Gay notched his first career interception in Week 15 by picking off Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the end zone with less than 20 seconds to seal a Pittsburgh victory. Gay also had 38 tackles on the season.

Key Matchups

Ravens LT Jared Gaither vs. Steelers OLB James HarrisonOne can expect the Ravens to regularly help Gaither with a tight end or a running back to chip Harrison, but the bulk of the blocking has to come from Baltimore's massive left tackle. Gaither needs to stay low on the 6-foot pass rusher and make sure he latches on quickly. He Gaither can get his hands on Harrison early, Flacco will be thankful.

Ravens Pass Rush vs. Steelers QB Ben RoethlisbergerThis could be affected by linebacker Terrell Suggs' (questionable, shoulder) status, but the Ravens must apply pressure on Roethlisberger. Cornerback Samari Rolleinjured his groin against the Titans and hasn't practiced all week. With the possibility of a depleted secondary, Baltimore needs to throw Roethlisberger off his rhythm by getting in his face. 

Quotable

Tomlin on what makes his defense unique or special compared to other defenses:"I'd probably say the level of consistency. It's not necessarily your ceiling that defines you as a player, as a unit, as a football team. It's your floor. What I mean by that is we're very consistent week in and week out with how we play, very little ups and downs in terms of that. We've had a few great games, but for the most part, we're solid every week. To me, that's as important as what you're capable of being."

Duff's Take

I can't believe the Ravens and Steelers are squaring off again, but I guess that's fitting considering both teams have simply beaten up their opponents all year to get to this spot.

Now, the more physical team will get their Super Bowl ticket punched.

For the Ravens to earn that right, they must first win the battle up front. Baltimore has generously used their unbalanced offensive line to create an extra running lane and establish 340-plus pound tackles Jared Gaither, Adam Terryand Willie Andersonall on the left side.

On a cold and perhaps snowy evening, that trio plays a critical role in moving the chains.

The Ravens also must hit and wrap up Roethlisberger. He's such a big quarterback (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), that he can shrug off tacklers and make plays with his feet. Not good for Baltimore, considering that Rolle may be absent (questionable, thigh).

That said, if Haloti Ngata and Justin Bannancan push the pocket a bit, and Jarret Johnson, Bart Scott- and maybe even Suggs - can shoot through open gaps, it would drastically cut down Roethlisberger's time to survey the field.

Listen, we all know the Ravens are really banged up right now and the Steelers are healthy. Pittsburgh has only two names on it's injury report, while Baltimore's has a litany of starters and key role players hurt.

But this Ravens team has simply found a way to win close games. It is something that developed as the season came to an end and continued into the playoffs. It's going to take more of that heart in a very hostile environment to keep the magic moving forward and toward Tampa. 

Ed. note: These aren't necessarily the beliefs of the Ravens organization.

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