The Baltimore Ravens' Scouting Report for AFC Championship Game

John StepnickCorrespondent IJanuary 14, 2009

As we well know by this point, the Ravens aren't going to do anything that will be of a big surprise. Joe Flacco has a strong arm and the ability to stretch the field. Derrick Mason is his go-to receiver and always the No. 1 target.

Mason might be one of the best route-runners in the league, and over the course of the season, he has developed a great relationship with Flacco.

Mason racked up 137 yards in the first meeting but was held to 23 in the second go around. Look for Ike Taylor of the Steelers to be matched up against Mason the whole game. Mark Clayton is the No. 2 guy in the passing game.

He is the down-field target and he has solid speed. Clark will likely shade towards Clayton rather than Mason, leaving Ike on an island.

The Steelers will probably use Polamalu in run defense and have a linebacker tracking Todd Heap-of-s**t, rather than using Polamalu to cover him. The Ravens' sole passing touchdown against the Steelers this year was not to Mason, Clayton, or Heap-of-s**t, but rather Derrick Wilcox, a backup fullback they hit out of the backfield on play-action from the four.

The Ravens' playoff strategy has been relatively conservative, but it has also played to their strengths. They know the strength of their team is the defense, so their offensive strategy has been relatively simple. When they are in their own territory, they will run the ball, even on third and long.

They won't take chances on their side of the 50 and are not afraid to let Sam Koch, who averaged over 45 yards a punt this season, reverse the field. They are willing to punt because they know their defense isn't going to give up many points.

Once the Ravens cross the 50, they are a different story. Against Tennessee, they were taking shots down-field as soon as they crossed the 50, one of which resulted in the game-tying touchdown.

However, the Ravens coaches, who are probably smarter than me since they're paid to coach and I write on a blog, will likely know this so it wouldn't be a total shock to seem them try to air it out ( particularly on first and second down when the Steelers are looking run).

One reason for the Ravens to air it out is their ailing backfield. Le'Ron McClain has been a heck of a discovery for them at tailback after he made the Pro Bowl as a fullback. McClain is a bruiser of the Jerome Bettis mold, but he has been hampered by an ankle injury that may slow him down against the Steelers.

Willis McGahee has been reduced to a backup role, but he has given the Steelers problems before.

The Ravens had success in the second game running the ball with an unbalanced line (bringing in an extra tackle and putting him in the tight end place). This strategy was somewhat successful in negating Harrison in run defense, but their extra tackle was also flagged for multiple penalties against the Defensive Player of the Year.

Speaking of injuries, the big question mark this week is Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who remains questionable with a strained shoulder. However, the Death Eaters defense will still be formidable without him.

Is "Death Eaters" too bad-ass of a name to give the Ravens defense? Maybe, but it sticks with the Baltimore/Voldemort thing I've been doing—and their defense is just about as scary.

The holes in the Baltimore defense are in the secondary. Ed Reed is a ballhawk, but the corners have been exposed by the Steelers in the past. Reed is the playmaker in the secondary, and the Steelers have had the most success against Baltimore when they have thrown short crossing routes and enabled their receivers to run in space.

Hines Ward had two almost identical 33-yard catches against the Ravens in the second game where he reeled it in about seven yards from the line and turned upfield for a big gain.

The Ravens, possibly more than any other team, exposed flaws in the Steelers kick return units. In the second game, Jeff Reed and Mitch Berger both made touchdown-saving tackles against Yamon Figures and Jim Leonard. The Ravens are solid in the return department and could give the Steelers problems here.


Playing the advantage

Baltimore's run game vs. Steelers Defense: Steelers
Baltimore's pass game vs. Steelers Defense: Steelers
Baltimore's return teams vs. Steelers coverage: Ravens
Steelers run game vs. Ravens Defense: Ravens
Steelers pass game vs. Ravens Defense: Steelers
Steelers return teams vs. Ravens coverage: Ravens

All in all, this game is going to be close. The Steelers have the advantage of the home crowd, but that means nothing this time of year.

The one factor that could play into this game is fatigue. The Ravens have not had a bye week since Week Two, which makes this their 18th consecutive week with a game. The advantages for them lie in the fact that they have a short travel time and are playing a familiar team.

Look for both teams to have limited success running the ball. A few big plays through the air or on defense will likely be the difference in this game. It will be low-scoring and bloody. The team that wins the turnover battle will win this game.