5 Matchups to Watch in Steelers Showdown with Ravens

Curt PopejoyContributor IOctober 18, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 02: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers fumbles the ball after making a catch as free safety Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens chases after him during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium on December 2, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

For all the conversation that takes place about coaching and schemes, the reality of the NFL is that sometimes games are won and lost because one team is able to exploit individual matchups and other teams are not.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are hosting the Baltimore ravens this weekend, and while neither team has played up to their billing this year, these teams have some amazing talent on both sides of the football. How each team copes with those stars could decide the outcome of the game.

Here are the five matchups to watch this Sunday. All stats provided by www.pro-football-reference.com.

Center Fernando Velaco against defensive tackle Haloti Ngata

There is very little debate about where Ngata ranks among defensive tackles in the NFL. In his seven seasons, Ngata has been an All-Pro five times, along with four Pro Bowl selections. At 6'4" and 340 pounds, Ngata demands a double on every play, and is a constant disruptive force in the middle of any offense line. The task of containing Ngata will fall on Steelers' center Fernando Velasco.

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18:  Nose tackel Haloti Ngata #92 of the Baltimore Ravens attempts to tackel Willie Parker #39 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Greg
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Velasco is a five-year veteran with 19 career starts under his belt, and his most dubious honor in football was second-team All-SEC in 2007. But, it's not all gloom and doom for the Steelers here. Velasco has played pretty well this year, and goes very hard all the way through the whistle on every play.

It's fairly certain the Steelers are going to give Velasco help on either side from a guard, but there will be times when he is going to have to strap it on and take on the massive Ngata. If the Steelers want to establish any sort of inside running, this is the matchup that will dictate it. I don't expect Velasco to win every one-on-one with Ngata, but he has to win enough to keep the rest of the Ravens defense honest.

Linebacker Terrell Suggs against the Steelers tackles

Going back over the Ravens games this season, it is clear that Suggs is doing his very best to fill the void at talent left by retired linebacker Ray Lewis. Suggs is playing with good health, which makes him even more dangerous as a pass rusher. He has seven sacks already this year, and will look to build on that this Sunday.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 6:   Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass against  Terrell Suggs #55 of the Baltimore Ravens during the game on November 6, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Alle
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

This is going to be a supreme challenge for starting tackles Kelving Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. From a strategic standpoint the Steelers are going to have to roll protection to Suggs' side. Chip him with a back or tight end at the snap, and then let the tackles come in and finish the job.

Another way to neutralize Suggs is to run at him with draws and delays. This will force him to play more disciplined football and not allow him to just fire off the ball every snap.

Tight end Heath Miller against safety Matt Elam

The Steelers were very grateful to get Miller back this season, as the passing offense has really improved since his return. His presence forces the defense to defend the middle of the field and allows those speedy outside receivers to run.

December 2, 2012;Baltimore, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83) gets tackled by Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard (31) at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

This week the task of protecting the middle of the field could fall on rookie safety Matt Elam. Elam is a big hitter and one of the best up-and-coming safeties in the league. While Elam might have an athletic advantage, Miller is one of the smartest players in the league when it comes to finding a way to get open.

If the Ravens don't give Elam help in coverage, Miller could have a field day.

Cornerback Ike Taylor against wide receiver Torrey Smith

All season long, the task of covering the top receiver on the opposing team has fallen on veteran cornerback Ike Taylor. This week, Taylor's draw will be the speedy Torrey Smith. The difference between smith and some of the other receivers Taylor has gone against this year is speed.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 18:  Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers breaks up a pass against Torrey Smith #82 of the Baltimore Ravens  during the game on November 18, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty I
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Whereas a Brandon Marshall is going to play physical football and use his body to get open, Smith is going to try and get deep in a hurry. A key to winning this matchup will be Taylor's ability to first be physical at the line with Smith, forcing him off his route and slowing him down.

But along with that, Taylor is going to have to tackle well. The Ravens will likely allow Taylor's coverage to dictate Smith's routes. If Taylor plays off, Smith will run short routes, hoping to turn them into long runs. If Taylor can't wrap up, he might not have much help behind him and the Smith could make short throws long gains.

Safety Troy Polamalu against running back Ray Rice

Even though this season has been something of a disappointment for Ravens running back Ray Rice, I still expect the Ravens to try and get him involved early in the offense.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 15:  Running back Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens is hit by safety Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Heinz Field on January 15, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nic
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu has had a great season, due in part to how they Steelers have used him. In many cases, Polamalu has been operating inside the box, almost functioning as an additional linebacker on plays.

Look for Polamalu to key on Rice on run downs and do his best to keep him from getting on track. Polamalu does a very good job of disrupting plays, and as the defense continues to get more aggressive, Polamalu's role will increase accordingly.

Which matchups do you think favor the Steelers, and will it be enough to pull off the upset?