NFL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens Preview

Mike ShannonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2011

NFL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. Baltimore Ravens Preview

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    Very few rivalries in the NFL are as heated as Ravens vs. Steelers and for good reason. 

    The players don't like each other, the fans hate one another and every game seems more hard-hitting than the last. The two teams are also both perennial playoff contenders and play a smash mouth brand of football that probably makes Mike Ditka applaud like a goon.

    With their upcoming playoff game on Saturday, the Steelers and Ravens both look to punch their ticket to the AFC title game and a date with destiny in Dallas. 

    But which team really holds the advantage heading into the weekend? 

    Let's take a look at a position-by-position breakdown to settle the argument once and for all.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger vs. Joe Flacco

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers will only go as far as their franchise QB takes them. 

    With Ben suspended for the first four games of the season, the Steelers managed a 3-1 record by playing great defensive play and getting timely touchdowns. Since then however, Big Ben has dazzled fans with his accurate passing, low interception rate and the ability to extend plays better than anyone in the league. 

    Whether you like him or not, you have to admit that Large Benjamin is simply a winner and anyone who has two Lombardi trophies before the age of 30 is always a threat.

    Joe Flacco has also been impressing people as of late, having the best statistical year of his young career. 

    The former first round pick has been assuming a leadership role with the team after spending much of the last two years with his ears open and his mouth shut. His 3,622 passing yards with 25 TDs are nothing to shake a stick at and with dangerous WRs at his disposal, Flacco throwing for 300 yards in a game is no longer a rarity. 

    Flacco, however, is only 2-5 against the Steelers in his career and both of his wins came in games Roethlisberger did not play. The Steelers seem to have Flacco's number and you have to wonder if that's in his head.

    Advantage:  Steelers

Running Back: Rashard Mendenhall vs. Ray Rice

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    Like most NFL teams, the Steelers and Ravens both use multiple running backs in their system.  However, Mendenhall and Rice are the undisputed feature backs on each team, so one of them is going to have an impact.

    Rashard Mendenhall is only in his second full year as a starter and he has over 1,000 yards in both years.  His 13 touchdowns this year are tops on the team, although you would like to see his 3.9 YPC be slightly higher. 

    Mendenhall does not pick up blitzes very well and is relegated to the bench on 3rd-and-long situations. 

    Mendenhall has improved on his fumbling this season but still needs to be able to get the tough yardage inside the 5-yard line if the Steelers want to capture their seventh title. 

    Rashard will have a tough day against the Baltimore front seven, but might be able to bust one or two if the Ravens commit too heavily to stopping the Pittsburgh passing attack.

    Ray Rice is the very definition of an explosive running back with ridiculous speed and the strength of a man much bigger. 

    However, Rice's stats have actually dropped off this year, with him averaging only 76 yards per game even though he had 50 more carries this year than last. Fantasy owners were no doubt displeased by Rice's four TDs on the ground this year but they can blame Willis McGahee for that. 

    Rice may have dipped statistically this year but ignoring his ability to break a big play would be a huge mistake. He is a threat out of the backfield in the passing game and any screen play to Rice has the chance to go the distance.

    Advantage:  Push

Wide Recievers: Ward/Wallace vs. Mason/Boldin

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    The Steelers may have gotten the steal of the 2009 NFL draft when they selected Mike Wallace in the 3rd round. 

    Wallace has become one of the NFL premiere big play wideouts, ranking third in the AFC in receiving and recording seven 100-yard games to go along with 10 touchdowns. 

    Hines Ward seems to have lost a step this year but he is still one of the best downfield blockers in the league and is always a threat inside the redzone. The Baltimore DBs will have to watch for the deep ball early and Ed Reed will have to be on his game all day long to stop the Steelers through the air.

    Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason may be far apart in age, but are almost statistical twins. 

    Boldin and Mason have similar reception totals (64 and 61), yardage (837 and 802) and touchdowns (both with seven). Mason has given Pittsburgh fans nightmares for years and you always have to pencil him in for at least five catches per game against the rivals from PA.  Boldin is not catching as many balls as he did in Arizona but he remains a big play threat and his size will be very difficult for DBs to handle. 

    The receiver battle may come down to which QB can get the ball out before he's killed by the pass rush.

    Advantage:  Steelers

Offensive Line

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    Any Pittsburgh Steelers fan will tell you that the offensive line has given them more headaches than IC Light this year. 

    With a string of injuries, the O-line is mainly a patched together group of guys who are learning new positions or just simply not that talented. The loss of tackle Max Starks has hurt the unit about as much as everyone thought it would and Jonathan Scott seems destined to have footprints on his back every single game. 

    The lone bright spot has been the play of rookie Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl rookie center, who has played like a 10-year veteran all year long. Big Ben will need to use every ounce of his mobility and Houdini-like escapism to dodge the Baltimore pass rush on Saturday.

    While the Ravens line has been slightly more consistent in terms of personnel, they still have struggled with run blocking in recent weeks.

    The pass protection hasn't been much better either, with Flacco being sacked 40 times during the regular season and four times last week against the Chiefs. 

    You can bet that the Steelers will be sending some exotic blitz packages at the Ravens and this line needs to step up if they want any chance of winning. If Joe Flacco hits the turf five or more times on Saturday, then it's going to be a long day. 

    Still, they played well on Sunday against a better-than-advertised KC pass rush, so maybe they can hold it together for one more week.

    Advantage:  Ravens

Tight Ends: Heath Miller vs. Todd Heap

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    Steelers tight end Heath Miller will definitely be looking for some payback on Saturday since, during their last meeting, Miller's head was almost detached from his body on a vicious hit while the Pro Bowler was defenseless. 

    Back and healthy again, Miller is consistently a favorite target in the redzone and blocks almost as well as an offensive lineman. While Heath has the talent to be a standout pass-catcher in the league, the Pittsburgh offense simply does not use him enough.

    Todd Heap, who also was injured in the Week 13 game, still racked up over 500 yards receiving even though he only played in 12 games. Heap has played the Steelers for many years and knows they are susceptible to big plays from pass-catching tight ends, which he will look to take full advantage. 

    Heap will also be counted on to pick up many of Pittsburgh's blitzes and clear some holes for Ray Rice in the running game. If he's up for the challenge or not remains to be seen but, as of now, he's still a problem for the Steelers D.

    Advantage:  Ravens

Defensive Line

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    One of the reasons the Pittsburgh defense has been so great over the years has been stellar play from their defensive line. 

    One of those consistent players, Aaron Smith, has been sidelined with an injury and has been replaced by second year man Ziggy Hood, who has performed modestly. Casey Hampton still commands attention in the middle and Brent Keisel is a very underrated, athletic defensive end who causes disruptions in the passing game. The line will have to be solid once again to ensure a Steeler victory.

    The Baltimore D-line is no slouch either, as Haloti Ngata has been a thorn in sides all year long and is a relentless bullrusher, recording six sacks this year. Kelly Gregg always seems to be pressing into the backfield and has made a handful of big plays this year. 

    While the line might not get the press of the linebacking corps, don't be fooled...this is a solid unit that can cause havoc for opposing teams. Quite simply, the Ravens and Steelers seem to be mirror images of one another and the dominant play of their defensive lines is always impressive.

    Advantage:  Push

Linebackers

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    The Steelers linebacking corps has been a source of pride since the 1970s and this unit is no different. 

    Led by former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, the Steelers LBs make life difficult for offenses every single week. Harrison and LaMarr Woodley might be the best pash rushing combo in the league, combining for 21 sacks this year, and veteran James Farrior seems to think it's 2001 all over again. 

    Lawrence Timmons is quickly establishing a name for himself as well, recording 135 tackles this year and covering the field sideline to sideline as fast as anyone. With all due respect to Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, this collection of Steeler linebackers might be the best in franchise history.

    In keeping with the theme of these teams being a mirror image of one another, witness the Baltimore linebacking unit. 

    Led by their perennial All-Pro, the ageless Ray Lewis, the Ravens always have a tenacious rush that clogs rushing lanes and makes it impossible for a QB to setup and throw. 

    Terrell Suggs is the kind of guy you despise while he's on the other team and love if he's causing havoc for yours. Lewis' 139 tackles show you he still has something left in the tank and Jarrett Johnson has a knack for timely plays. 

    After you play the Ravens, there's a reason you're sore for the next three days. 

    Suggs and Lewis might push with Harrison and Farrior, but I give the advantage to the Steelers based off the Timmons/Johnson matchup.

    Advantage:  Steelers

Defensive Backs

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    This matchup is quite simply about comparing two men: Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. 

    Both fanbases argue that their guy is the best safety in the game, but really you could make a case for both. Polamalu has to be identified on every single play (ask Joe Flacco), lest he cause extreme havoc that could result in six points for the Steelers before you can blink. 

    Ed Reed is a ball hawking safety who always seems to be on a verge of making a huge play. Both guys are going to be on camera quite a bit on Saturday and I would put my money on one of these men making the play that breaks the game wide open.

    As far as an advantage goes, Polamalu made the big play the last time these two met so he wins this round.

    Advantage:  Steelers

Coaching: Mike Tomlin vs. John Harbaugh

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    In a league where young coaches are getting canned left and right, these two men have become very successful leading proud franchises to playoff runs. 

    John Harbaugh is Baltimore's favorite adopted son while Mike Tomlin is the epitome of cool on the sidelines every week. 

    The Steelers and Ravens seem destined to fight over the AFC North for a long time and these two could be meeting at midfield for many years to come. Unfortunately for Harbaugh, Tomlin wins when it counts, including a victory over the Ravens in the AFC title game in 2008, and has a Super Bowl ring.

    Advantage:  Steelers


Special Teams

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    In a game where teams are so evenly matched, it can sometimes be the special teams that makes the play to win the game. 

    The Steelers sent longtime kicker Jeff Reed packing after he drank one-too-many Miller Lites and had to replace punter Daniel Sepuvleta (again) after his latest injury. The Steelers kick coverage team has been better this year but still has the ability to give up a huge return at the worst possible time.

    Baltimore's Billy Cundiff seems to have been using his Wii Fit because he is absolutely booming the ball off kickoffs, which doesn't give the Steelers speedy return men much of a chance. Sam Koch is a solid punter and is deadly when aiming for the coffin corner, giving the Ravens a distinct advantage.

    The Ravens might have the best kicker-punter combo in the NFL.

    Advantage:  Ravens

Prediction

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    Full disclosure: I am a Steelers fan and want nothing more than Pittsburgh to win 56-0.  However, I am also a realist and know this game is going to be difficult, hard-hitting and come down to the end. 

    The Steelers and Ravens are perfect for one another, play the game the way it's supposed to be played and hate each other...all ingredients for a great rivalry. 

    This is the rubber match of the 2010 season and a trip to the AFC title game is on the line. Can the Steelers shut down their biggest rival in the playoffs one more time or will the Ravens go into Heinz Field and ruin the Pittsburgh party? 

    In a game like this, I believe it comes down to the quarterbacks. Last game, Flacco made one big mistake and that was all it took for the Steelers to pounce and win the game. Also, in their earlier meeting this year, the Ravens needed a last second touchdown to win in Pittsburgh even though the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger.

    Just like Tom Brady seems to have Pittsburgh's number, Big Ben seems to have Baltimore's. 

    The two-time Super Bowl champion is tough enough to hang in the pocket, can make all the big throws and isn't afraid to take a shot at the end zone. The Ravens defense is as good as advertised but Big Ben just might be better

    Steelers 24 Ravens 17