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1. Could the Baltimore Ravens actually take the Pittsburgh Steelers lightly? On the surface, that would appear to be a potential danger for the Ravens (11-3) heading into today’s game against the Steelers (7-7) at Heinz Field following a 27-0 blowout victory last month in Baltimore. However, the Steelers are the Ravens’ archrival and have gone 5-1 in their past six games with their lone loss coming at M&T Bank Stadium. The Steelers absolutely abused the Carolina Panthers last week, dominating the game in every facet. Now, they are playing their style of football, throwing less, emphasizing a physical, downhill running attack and tightening up on defense.
Over the past three games, the Steelers have allowed just 13 points while the Ravens have allowed 50 over their past five contests. The Steelers are a long shot for the playoffs, and Baltimore has already clinched a playoff berth and the AFC North title. They have a legitimate chance at securing a first-round bye, but have to keep winning to keep that hope alive. Expect an intense game with a lot of exercise for punters Sam Koch and Chris Gardocki.
2. Can the Ravens duplicate what they did last time to Ben Roethlisberger? It’s unlikely that Roethlisberger will be sacked nine times again or knocked down on 20 occasions, but the Ravens can generate pressure on him. The Steelers aren’t throwing the football as regularly now. He has thrown just one interception over the past three games, but has 20 picks for the year. The Ravens blitz a lot, bringing extra pressure from the secondary and delay blitzes to confuse the Steelers’ offensive line. They are likely to go after rookie right tackle Willie Colon, who makes his first start against Trevor Pryce. They need to get a pass rush against him with cornerback Samari Rolle not 100 percent with a stinger. The depth behind him is shaky as backup Evan Oglesby was beaten twice for touchdowns last week in relief.
3. Can Jamal Lewis take over this game? Lewis rushed for 109 yards last week against the Browns’ subpar defense and has scored six touchdowns in the past five games. However, he still isn’t attacking the line of scrimmage like he used to. That kind of hesitancy could hurt the Ravens’ cause. The Steelers only allowed 43 rushing yards last week against Carolina and this front seven has been very stout. Fullback Ovie Mughelli needs to have a big game as a lead blocker.
4. Can the Ravens exploit Pittsburgh deep? Although All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu is back this week and Steve McNair is suffering from a hand injury, the Ravens could go deep against rookie safety Anthony Smith, who’s likely to replace injured Ryan Clark. The Ravens will likely stick with a ball-control approach with a few selective shots downfield.
5. Can the Ravens contain Fast Willie Parker? Last month, Pittsburgh managed just 21 rushing yards in Baltimore. The Ravens allowed only 68 rushing yards against Cleveland. Parker ripped off 132 rushing yards against Carolina, including an impressive 41-yard touchdown. However, little of his excellence against other teams seems to ever translate against the Ravens’ top-ranked defense, which allows just 79.4 rushing yards per game.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (19) Rushing (22) Passing (12)
Steve McNair might not be 100 percent at throwing the football, or taking snaps from center one week removed from having his throwing hand punctured by Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis. Streaky backup Kyle Boller will need to stay ready on the sidelines.
This is Jamal Lewis’ type of football game: in the cold against a physical defense. With McNair still hurting and the Ravens likely going to a more conservative game plan, Lewis needs to deliver and move the chains.
There are only three teams in the NFL that have a trio of receivers with 55 receptions apiece, and Baltimore is one of them along with Detroit and St. Louis as tight end Todd Heap (64) and receivers Derrick Mason (61) and Mark Clayton (58) have all had strong seasons.
Good morning, Adam Terry. You’re on the spot with Jonathan Ogden out with a toe injury and Joey Porter breathing down your neck. The Ravens need a respectable game out of Terry at left tackle to keep McNair healthy.
Total (1) Rushing (2) Passing (6)
Trevor Pryce was a major Pro Bowl snub with 12 sacks, but nose guard Kelly Gregg was also deserving of all-star consideration. Pro Bowl selection Terrell Suggs is playing the run and pass extremely well, developing as an overall outstanding rush end.
Ray Lewis sure sounded bitter while insisting that he wasn’t when he was excluded from the Pro Bowl. Expect Lewis to try to make a statement with his play along with fellow inside linebacker snub Bart Scott. Adalius Thomas is headed to Hawaii and a rich free agent contract.
Chris McAlister is having his best season in years and was rewarded with a Pro Bowl trip, but has to be aware of Hines Ward’s ability to sell the double move and the post corner route. Samari Rolle could be even more limited than usual in run support because of a neck stinger. Safety Ed Reed needs to help over the top and contain tight end Heath Miller.
Kicker Matt Stover is having an outstanding season, only missing two field goals with one following a bad snap by Matt Katula. Punter Sam Koch is averaging 43.1 yards and has been a model of consistency. Diminutive return specialist Cory Ross is averaging only 2.6 yards per punt return and 21.8 on kickoffs.
Total (6) Rushing (12) Passing (8)
It will be interesting to see if Ben Roethlisberger is gun-shy today because of the assault his body endured the last time he played Baltimore with nine sacks, including Bart Scott’s near-knockout blow, along with at least 10 other knockdowns. Wisely, the Steelers are throwing the ball less now.
Willie Parker is a nice story, going from an underappreciated backup at North Carolina to an undrafted free agent find by the Steelers. He made the Pro Bowl as a reserve, rushing for 1,331 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 29 passes for three more scores.
Hines Ward has battled injuries, but is fairly healthy now and has caught a team-high 61 passes for 845 yards and six touchdowns. Rookie Santonio Holmes is emerging as a dangerous deep threat, averaging 15.3 yards per reception on 40 catches. Tight end Heath Miller has had an off year with 31 catches for 381 yards and four touchdowns.
The Steelers are starting rookie Willie Colon, a fourth-round draft pick from Hofstra, at right tackle with Marvel Smith out. This could be a problem for Pittsburgh with Trevor Pryce lurking at left end. He abused Browns right tackle Kelly Butler for two sacks last week.
Total (9) Rushing (5) Passing (15)
Blockish nose guard Casey Hampton plays the leverage game nearly as well as anyone. Aaron Smith is the classic 3-4 end, tough, strong and aggressive. Brett Keisel is a future star at the other defensive end position.
Quietly, James Farrior had another great season inside. Larry Foote and Clark Haggans didn’t come up as big this year, and neither did mouthy Joey Porter by his own admission. He only has seven sacks.
Troy Polamalu is back, which should energize the Steelers’ secondary. They have issues at the other safety spot with Ryan Clark out and might have to start undersized Tyrone Carter or rookie Anthony Smith. Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and DeShea Townsend have been inconsistent.
Kicker Jeff Reed knows how to kick in the gusting winds at Heinz Field, but has struggled overall with 19 of 26 accuracy. Santonio Holmes is a decent punt returner with a 10.3 average. Chris Gardocki is averaging 41.4 yards per punt.
Ravens quarterback Steve McNair has thrived against the Steelers with 2,593 career yards and 18 touchdown passes on 61.5 percent accuracy. In his seven games at Pittsburgh, he has completed 78.3 percent for 1,150 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 122.6 passer rating. He has won three of the last four games against the Steelers, going 4-2 in his past six trips to Pittsburgh.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland