The Ravens are set to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET).
*BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's next opponent. *
2009 Rankings* *
Total Offense – 6th (379.7 ypg) Total Defense – 1st (277.9)
Rush Offense – 17th (111.6) Rush Defense – 1st (69.2)
Pass Offense – 5th (268.1) Pass Defense – 13th (208.7)
Points Per Game – T14th (23.1) Points Per Game – 8th (18.4)
Sizing Them Up
The defending Super Bowl champions are built much like the Ravens. Both teams have a stout defense that prides itself on stopping the run and a versatile offense that can eat up yards in many different ways.
Head coach Mike Tomlin has his players performing at a high level, despite some recent injuries. One of those players is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is the NFL's best quarterback when he leaves the pocket. Big and powerful, Roethlisberger has the strong arm to hit receivers on the run and the size to shake off tacklers.
Roethlisberger has a trio of targets that he utilizes the most in wideouts Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward, and tight end Heath Miller. All three have combined for 167 receptions for 2,054 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Steelers' rushing attack is handled by two talented backs, second-year pro Rashard Mendenhall and former Pro Bowler Willie Parker. Mendenhall has started the past seven games and racked up a team-leading 689 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
Defensively, the league's top unit has a ferocious pass rush that is keyed by outside linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, who teamed up for 27.5 sacks last year. Massive defensive tackle Casey Hampton anchors the middle of Pittsburgh's defensive line. The Ravens will have the luxury of not seeing safety Troy Polamalu, however, because of a knee injury.
What's Up?* *
Teresa Varley of Steelers.com, writes that Roethlisberger is ready to play on Sunday.
"Roethlisberger, who suffered previous concussions, said he underwent testing before he was given the green light to practice and that he felt fine. He also said dealing with the danger of potential concussions is part of the game, even if not a welcome part."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gene Collier thinks that Dennis Dixon being one snap away from playing quarterback is bad news for the Steelers.
"Nothing against Dixon, whose professional resume would fit on a post-it note through no fault of his own. That whirring sound you've been hearing since Monday is the collective memory of Steelers Nation straining to come up with the name beneath Charlie Batch on Mike Tomlin's depth chart."
The Steelers are still searching for their "edge," writes Joe Starkey, columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.* *
"Playing in Baltimore might help, for if any team can sharpen the Steelers' dulled edge, it's the Ravens."
Offensive – Roethlisberger is the engine behind the Steelers' attack, as the 6-foot-5, 241-pounder has the ability to make plays even when the originally-called action breaks down. He is coming off a stellar performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, where he completed 32 of 42 passes for 398 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. That day, Roethlisberger posted a 109.0 passer rating, the fifth time this year he's cracked the century mark.
Defensive – Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is a player that teams must game plan around. Off the edge, he is among the league's elite at getting to the quarterback. Harrison posted a team-record 16 sacks last year and now owns a club-best 10 sacks despite the extra attention.
WR Mike Wallace
Wallace ranks second among all rookies with 500 receiving yards and third with 28 catches. A third-round draft pick, he also has three touchdowns, solidifying his role as the Steelers' clear third receiver.
Ravens LT Jared Gaither vs. Steelers OLB James Harrison
It is imperative for Gaither to keep Harrison off Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco. Gaither probably had his best warm up last Sunday when he turned in a stellar showing against Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher extraordinaire Dwight Freeney. The Ravens have kept a tight end in to block Harrison in the past.
Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth vs. Steelers WR Santonio Holmes
Foxworth was brought to Baltimore for his cover ability and speed, and he will have to use all of that speed to stay with the quick Holmes. With Fabian Washington out because of a season-ending knee injury, Foxworth will likely be matched up with Pittsburgh's top wideout.
Tomlin on how different the Steelers' defense is without S Troy Polamalu:"Troy's a special player. It'd probably be the equivalent of the Ravens' defense without Ed Reed. I don't know that you can quantify the impact. You acknowledge that there's a difference, but at the same time, you understand that the standard is the standard, and we have to play winning football."
Ward on the best way to describe this rivalry:"I think war. All-out war. I think [Tony] Siragusa started, years ago, saying something about [if] you see a fan, punch him in the face, or something like that. Way to go Siragusa. (laughing) But the rivalry itself, it's just pure respect, but pure hatred. When Coach [Bill] Cowher was here, I don't think him and [Brian] Billick were going to go out and be true friends. I don't think they particularly liked each other as well. The players, we respect each other, but there is a genuine dislike. [Terrell] Suggs, he's not playing – unfortunately he got hurt – but he's really the catalyst as far as the trash talk of that whole group. Ray [Lewis] is letting his play speak for itself. We know when Baltimore and Pittsburgh get together, it is all-out war when it comes down to playing."
This game is shaping up to being one of the classic Steelers/Ravens matchups fans are treated to at least twice a year – and sometimes three with last season's playoff meeting.
It will also alter the course of both teams' seasons. The winner can begin building momentum for a strong push for a postseason berth. For the loser, the playoff hunt becomes a fleeting thought.
The Ravens can come out on the positive side and remain in the conversation by playing focused football. In most of their past defeats, mental mistakes like penalties and missed tackles have contributed to marks in the loss column.
The Steelers are a team that is coached well enough to exploit any of those mistakes.
There are opportunities for the Ravens to exploit, as well. Roethlisberger is coming off a mild concussion, so a few early hits on him could cause him to be more tentative in the pocket. Starting guard Chris Kemoeatu is out with a knee injury, so Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg could get some extra penetration up the middle.
In a season where the Ravens have dropped games with a laundry list of woulda, shoulda, coulda's, however, there needs to be more can-do's to stay in the race.