Ravens vs. Steelers Game Preview

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With first place in the AFC North at stake, the Ravens are set to faceoff against archrival Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon (4:15pm ET).

BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's Week 15 opponent.

Rankings

Total Offense - 26 (302.8)   Total Defense - 1 (241.9)

Rush Offense - 23 (103.8)   Rush Defense - 1 (73.0)

Pass Offense - 20 (199.0)   Pass Defense - 1 (168.9)

Points Per Game - 20 (22.2)   Points Per Game - 1 (14.1)

Sizing Them Up

The Steelers are coming off one of the most exciting games in the NFL this season, beating the Dallas Cowboys 20-13 on an interception return for a touchdown with 1:40 left on the clock.

The play – where Dallas quarterback Tony Romo overthrew tight end Jason Witten and cornerback Deshea Townsend pounced on the pick to race 25 yards to paydirt – basically sums up the way Pittsburgh is winning games this season: defense.

Led by a cast of fierce defenders like safety Troy Polamalu, and outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers boast the NFL's best unit in a number of categories. The unit has a knack for creating big plays, much like Townsend's pick-six.

Harrison and Woodley have already set a team record with a combined 26.5 sacks this year, which is impressive considering Pittsburgh is a franchise known for a history of prolific pass-rushers.

Meanwhile, Polamalu covers the entire field like a blanket. Not only does he have a league-high seven interceptions, he enters this weekend with a theft in four consecutive games. Polamalu is also fourth on the team with 73 tackles, an excellent mark for a safety.

Offensively, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may not have the statistics that would suggest he is one of the league's elite at his position, but his leadership and playmaking ability have consistently moved the chains for Pittsburgh.

A consistent winner, Roethlisberger has a career 21-4 career record. Last week, he helped engineer that super comeback against the Cowboys, the 16th come-from-behind victory of his career. And Roethlisberger has even staged fourth-quarter comebacks in three other games this year, doing it in Weeks 4, 5 and 11.

Speedy Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker recently returned to the lineup after missing five games with knee and shoulder injuries this year. Although he has had some trouble getting in a rhythm, with 14 yards on 42 carries (3.5-yard average per carry) in his last three contests, Parker is a game-breaking threat at any time.

Roethlisberger's favorite weapons are wideouts Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. Ward is known as one of the toughest receivers in the game, while Holmes' 15.4-yard average per catch suggests his speed and downfield ability.

In addition, kicker Jeff Reed is a long-time clutch performer. He has booted two game-winning field goals in 2008, including a 46-yard overtime clincher against the Ravens on Sept. 29.

What's Up?

My counterpart with the Steelers, Bob Labriola, thinks Polamalu and Ravens safety Ed Reed will battle for supremacy at their position Sunday.

"It's not that these guys actually line up on the field and oppose each other, but in big games between quality teams it's often the stars who make the difference. Polamalu and Reed are two of this game's biggest stars." 

Star left tackle Chris Samuels has been having a tough year because of a knee injury, according to Jason Reid of the Washington Post.

"With a once-promising season threatening to slip away, Samuels is among many team leaders who have taken on more responsibility as Washington begins its final four-game stretch. Samuels plans to start Sunday as the Redskins (7-5) face the Ravens (8-4) at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Anything beyond that depends on how his knee fares."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac writes about head coach Mike Tomlin's reaction to Parker's inflammatory comments regarding the Steelers' offense.

"Tomlin was not happy that Parker said the offense, which ranks 20th in the NFL in rushing, has gotten away from "Steelers football." Or that the two-tight end offense used by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, which does not usually employ a fullback, is not effective for running the ball." 

Roethlisberger has a big-time contract in Pittsburgh, and there is definitely pressure that comes along with that, says Ron Cook, of the Post-Gazette.

"The Rooneys gave him the Monopoly money to win this kind of game, one that would give the Steelers the AFC North Division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs." 

Awards

Offensive - Roethlisberger has to win this award for his performances of late. Without consistent outings from Parker, he's done an incredible job of winning games with his feet and his arm. His offensive line has been banged up, but Roethlisberger continues to shed tacklers and make all the throws he needs to. And, we already noted his clutch showings in the fourth quarter this year, which have kept the Steelers among the AFC's elite.

Defensive - Harrison, who quickly rose to Pro Bowl status last year, has been a terror off the edge. He is third in the NFL with a career-high 15 sacks and boasts 86 tackles, good for third on the team. He may only be 6-feet, 240 pounds, but Harrison makes up for a lack of great size with an intense motor and sound technique. Last time he saw the Ravens, he posted 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble. Harrison is also a former undrafted free agent that Baltimore released his rookie year.

Emerging Star

Receiver Nate Washington has proved to be a legitimate threat as a third wideout. He leads the Steelers with a healthy 16.3 yards per grab, including a 65-yard trouchdown. Washington owns 31 receptions for 504 yards and four touchdowns on the season. He has also hauled in four balls of over 25 yards.

Key Matchups

Ravens RT Willie Anderson vs. Steelers OLB LaMarr WoodleyMuch has been made about Harrison, but Woodley can be just as vicious on the opposite side. Already this year, Woodley set a career high with 11.5 sacks in his first season as a starter. If the Ravens shift their protections in Harrison's direction, that could leave one-on-one scenarios for Anderson to handle. The stalwart veteran has done it in the past, but Woodley could be his biggest test.

Ravens CB Fabian Washington vs. Steelers WR Santonio HolmesEarlier this week, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan admitted he'd like to see a footrace between Washington, the fastest player at the 2005 NFL Combine, and Holmes, who is perhaps and equal speedster. Washington faces the second challenge of a blazing-fast wideout after keeping up with the Redskins' Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El last Sunday.

Quotable

Tomlin on what he thinks sets the Steelers' defense apart and why they have played so well this year:"I don't know that we've set ourselves apart. I think we're still writing that story. We get a bunch of headlines for being No. 1 and all that, but we're a work in progress. I'm sure the Ravens feel like they've got a great defense over there – and rightfully so. That's what these games are about. We've still got games to play, in particular we've got one in front of us this week. We're not all caught up in what's being said. We realize that every time we step out on the field we're writing our story."

Harrison on whether he feels the Steelers were fairer in their treatment of him than the Ravens:"I don't feel anybody was unfair [in the way] they treated me, and everybody makes decisions on what they have and what they have to do. The reason they said they let me go was that they needed a tight end. The tight end they picked up was Daniel Wilcox. We played NFL Europe together, and [Wilcox] is still there. They obviously needed a tight end. I don't point fault at anybody, but that's just part of the game. Just like the Steelers cut me three times, and here I am now."

Duff's Take

Grab your popcorn and maybe an icepack for this game. Not only is it going to be entertaining, but it just might hurt to watch, considering the smash-mouth styles both of these teams bring to the field.

I am pretty sure that this is going to be a matchup where everything is left on the field, considering the division and playoff implications.

Now, the weather forecast is calling for something in the 40s with sunny skies, so it's not like the conditions are going to be all muddy and plodding, but the Ravens would do well to keep the ball on the ground and play to their strength.

The Steelers may be able to stop the run – as they're ranked first in the league by allowing an average of 73 yards per game – but they have given up 122 and 95 yards on the ground the past two weeks.

A heavy dose of Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee can do a few things.

First, it can keep the Steelers' offense off the field by moving the chains with solid first- and second-down rushes.

Second, it can keep that opportunistic defense honest. A strong rushing attack will force Pittsburgh to bring an extra man in the box, which will open up some passing lanes for Joe Flacco and sell play action fakes.

Third, if the Ravens can establish the run, it will send a direct message to their rival - that they're going to attack what the Steelers do best and do it with success. In Baltimore, that's called imposing your will.

While this all depends on the play of the offensive line and how McClain and McGahee pound it out (Ray Rice is going to be a game-time decision with a leg bruise), it is evident that whoever can run the ball Sunday will have the best chance of winning.

Which defense will step up? We'll find out Sunday, and the answer will likely be found between the tackles.

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

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