It’s that time of year again in the NFL. On Sunday, the Ravens and Steelers will renew one of the best modern-day rivalries for the first time this season.
These perennial powerhouses have been locks for the AFC playoffs the past three years, but who will win the division is a toss-up each year.
This high level of competition is due in part to the superstars on each side of the ball.
For the Steelers, names like Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu dominate the vernacular in the Steel City. Across the field, the Baltimore Ravens have competed for more than a decade behind a Ray Lewis-led defense.
This week, none of those players will be suiting up.
Instead the Ravens will match big-play receiver Torrey Smith against the No. 1 Pittsburgh pass defense, while Ray Rice will put the new Steel Curtain to the test on the ground.
Nonetheless, here are three reasons why the Steelers can shut Rice down this week.
While many defenses focus on making opposing offenses one-dimensional, Pittsburgh’s defense is so dominant that it can shut down every aspect of an offense.
Despite the loss of Troy Polamalu in Week 2, Ryan Clark and the Pittsburgh secondary have allowed a league-leading 171.1 yards-per-game average through the air this year.
Although Joe Flacco has exposed the Steelers for big plays in recent years, Baltimore’s ability to go through the air this week will likely be diminished.
While they are a statistically-better passing team this season—ranked 13th in passing yards and just 20th in rush yards—Baltimore will have to be explosive on the ground this week.
The question is: Can they be?
Pittsburgh has faced and shut down top-tier rushers this year. In Week 5, Pittsburgh hosted LeSean McCoy and the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Steelers held McCoy to just 53 yards in the game.
Against Jamaal Charles on Monday night, Charles did manage to eclipse 100 yards.
However, those 100 yards came on 23 carries—the most Pittsburgh has seen from a single rusher this season.
Ray Rice has seen just an average of 16 carries per game this season, and I don’t expect that number to vary too dramatically this week.
As dangerous as Ray Rice has been in the past four years, his production has dropped off a bit in 2012. Currently, Rice is on pace for 1168 yards this season, which is almost 200 yards fewer than he recorded in 2011.
Rice has exceeded 90 yards only four times this season and has surpassed 100 yards just twice.
Rice also averages 3.8 yards-per-game and likely won’t exceed that on Sunday.
A lot of that minimized production is perhaps due to play-calling and Joe Flacco’s increased involvement in the Baltimore offense. Flacco, conversely, is on pace for a career high in pass attempts.
Against the Houston Texans, who have a comparable top-10 defense, Rice was stymied and was held to just 42 yards.
Though this was a game where Baltimore had to go to the air early, this is not an isolated occurrence. Rice did not have better luck against a poor Oakland defense that Baltimore beat handily.
He averaged just 2.7 yards on 13 carries.
The Pittsburgh front seven is dominated by Casey Hampton and James Harrison, a tandem that has frustrated rushers and quarterbacks annually.
This should be no different for Rice and Baltimore.
When Rice goes to the left, he will be running right at James Harrison. With 25 total tackles this season, 14 of them on his own, Harrison will make it difficult for Rice to reach the outside and even more difficult for him to make an impact.
Unfortunately, where the large extent of Rice’s production has come from this season has been rushing to the left. Most of Rice's rushing attempts (66) have been to the left, and he has compiled 314 yards going in that direction, which composes nearly half of his total yardage this season.