1) Internal Clock: Quarterback Joe Flacco has gotten better with his footwork within the pocket. He has adopted a keen sense of when to move to open spaces, and when to get rid of the ball before the rusher closes in. That said, against the Steelers, his intuitive sense of when to release the ball has to be quicker than ever.
In his past two performances against the vaunted Pittsburgh defense, young Flacco has held the ball too long. Instead of taking the sack, he has made attempts to escape the pocket or throw the ball on the move. Flacco will need to be smarter in the AFC Championship.
Given the speed and timing of the Pittsburgh blitzkrieg, the fastball pitcher will have to speed up his timing for releasing the ball before the pocket collapses. In addition, when he is in trouble, he has to protect the ball – even if that means swallowing a sack or throwing the ball out of bounds. In a game of this magnitude, there can be no room for error.
2) Spotting Polamalu: Just as the Baltimore defense has a wrecking ball defender on its side of the ball in safety Ed Reed, the Steelers also boast a game-changer in perennial Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu floats all over the field. He has the ability to start inside of the box as a linebacker, only to backpedal into the secondary to break on the ball. By the same token, Polamalu also has the ability to sprint from a deep coverage landmark into the backfield on a blitz. He is that versatile.
It will be up to Flacco to keep track of Polamalu pre and post snap. Even if Flacco aims his throw away from Polamalu’s side, he will need to deliver the pass with velocity. If his throws flutter in the air, Polamalu has the ability to break on the ball in a hurry.
It is also important that Flacco anticipates when Polamalu is in the box.
When Polamalu moves closer to the line-of-scrimmage, the lead signal-caller could use motion to draw Polamalu out. Specifically, Flacco should have the reign to motion a back or tight end wide over Polamalu. If Polamalu does not move to cover and comes free on a blitz, the hot route would be open. If Polamalu does move with the motioning receiver, that receiver would have the chance to work against the safety in open space.
3) Screens and other misdirection plays: What has made the Baltimore offense so special this season, in comparison to other years, is its ability to keep defenses guessing. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has done a masterful job of using a variety of creative formations and designs to manufacture big plays for the Baltimore offense.
However, that imagination has not come into play during the postseason. Although the Baltimore offense has been efficient at times, and has made key conversions when it has needed to, it has lacked some of the sizzle it displayed during the regular seasons.
It is difficult to fool a division opponent, but Cameron will need to pull out all of the stops against the Steelers. The Steelers are an aggressive group, but the reason they do a nice job of recovering in backside pursuit is that they use the zone shell for protection when they do sell out. However, when the Pittsburgh rushers do get up the field, screens and chip routes should be used as often as possible to pierce the gaps. The backs will need to have an active day as pass catchers if the offense is to have any chance to move the ball.
1) Look at this bunch: No team in the NFL uses the bunch formation as much as the Steelers do. It is a staple formation in the team’s playbook.
The bunch constitutes a formation in which three receivers line up tight off of the right side of the line, and the fourth receiver is wide, on the other side of the line.
Defenses struggle to cover this scheme because it is hard to get a read on what routes the three receivers run simultaneously. If the coverage is zone, the receivers could run crossers to split the zone. If the coverage is man, two of the receivers could run deeper routes to clear space for the third wideout to operate underneath.
No matter what a defense tries to do to defend the intersecting routes, there is usually one prime mismatch that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can turn to off of the breaking stem, or he could turn to the other side and use the slant to take advantage of single coverage on the lone receiver.
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will have to find a way to control this passing attack. He will have to dial up a variation of zone and man coverages to slow it down, and his linebackers will need to be active in hitting the receivers underneath before they release out of the bunch.
2) Stymie the run: There is no question that the Baltimore defense needs a break. It appears to be running on fumes, and the run defense has given up a number of deep gashes in the past three games.
They will get little relief against a recharged Pittsburgh ground game. Fast Willie Parker has his legs back and the Pittsburgh line looks better coordinated than at any point during the regular season.
Still, the Ravens have traditionally stuffed Parker and the Pittsburgh rush attack.
It will be paramount that the defense has a better day getting off of blocks than it did against the Titans. The front seven was physically mauled at the point-of-impact and the linebackers took poor angles to tackle tailback Chris Johnson.
They cannot afford that type of slip against Parker. Like Johnson, he has the ability to switch gears in a hurry in the open field. If Parker and the Pittsburgh rush gets going, then the Steelers will be able to use play action, and its offense will be just as devastating at it was against San Diego in the divisional round.
3) The closer: In the postseason, the Baltimore defense has stood tall in closing situations. It will need to continue the trend against a Pittsburgh team that always manages to make plays when the game is on the line.
Without a doubt, this is the biggest mental hurdle for a defense that has learned to close since it lost in the waning minutes against the Steelers in Baltimore. This game will once again come down to the wire, and when it does, the proud Baltimore defenders will need to stand their ground against their arch-nemesis if they want to play in the Super Bowl.
One-on-one Matchup to Watch: Jason Brown versus Casey Hampton: Hampton remains the epicenter of the Pittsburgh defense. The veteran nose guard is tough to move and he commands a double team. Brown is one of the stronger centers in the league. He will need to block Hampton at an angle, and keep the tackle moving laterally on run plays.