NFL Picks Week 1: Will Steelers or Ravens Claim Early Lead in AFC North?

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2011

LATROBE, PA - JULY 29:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches his teammates during training camp on July 29, 2011 at St Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a rare matchup during the first week of the NFL regular season.

It's rare for two reasons.

The first is moot really. This is the first time in a long time—at least as long as I can remember—that the Steelers and Ravens have faced off against each other in a game that wasn't a prime time matchup. In fact, it will be just plain odd to be watching this game in daylight without the cold and brisk air that sets the scene so perfectly for the most physical matchup in football.

The second reason this matchup is rare for these two teams is because one side is clearly better than the other. More often than not the Ravens vs. Steelers games go down to the wire and each side only ever separates themselves with the equivalent of one touchdown or less.

This year, the Baltimore Ravens don't appear to be ready for the start of the season. The Ravens have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but there are a few vital question marks hanging over the team that will not be answered ahead of Week 1.

After a preseason of turmoil on the offensive line, the Ravens made two late additions to try to fortify a position that looks to be undergoing some serious surgery for this point of the year.

Michael Oher entered the season as the starting left tackle, but seems to be shifted to the right-hand side now. After Oniel Cousins' awful performances in the preseason, he found himself released rather than being the team's starting right tackle as he was originally expected to be.

Now Bryant McKinnie has arrived to replace Cousins and protect Joe Flacco's blindside. This may be an improvement to the line but there will be an adjustment period while McKinnie finds his feet if he can at all. The problem I have with McKinnie is that the Minnesota Vikings thought Charlie Johnson was a better option than him.

McKinnie was released from the Vikings for being overweight and his replacement is competing with Demetrius Bell of the Buffalo Bills in trying to solidify himself as the worst starting left tackle in the whole league. Johnson is a big part of why Peyton Manning is injured right now!

With James Harrison lining up across from him it is difficult to think that McKinnie will be able to provide sufficient protection for Flacco to throw the ball. McKinnie wasn't that good when fully fit in Minnesota, with question marks over his fitness now, he won't exactly excel.

The preseason long injury to Matt Birk shouldn't prevent him from playing, but will hurt his effectiveness on opening day while Marshal Yanda is in a similar position after picking up a problem midway through preseason. Andre Gurode's arrival from Dallas will take time for him to incorporate himself onto the line.

While the Steelers don't boast the strongest offensive line in the league either, Flacco is not Ben Roethlisberger. Flacco needs protection, he is a pocket passer and not known for his elusiveness.

Even if Flacco does get time, the Steelers secondary won't fear the Ravens' receiving corp. Todd Heap is gone and his physical presence sorely hurt the Steelers over the years. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta don't look like replacing him effectively in this game.

Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans are a stellar pair but they lack the depth to take advantage of the Steelers. David Reed is suspended for the first game so Tandon Doss will likely get the nod as the third receiver. Doss had a good preseason, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts going over the middle against the Steelers' linebacking group this early in his career.

Of course, Ray Rice is still a stud running back with a great new blocker ahead of him in Vonta Leach. However, it's been a very long time since a one-dimensional running offense got the better of the Steelers defense.

On the other side of the ball, things will be pretty similar.

The one big worry for the Steelers is Terrell Suggs' matchup with Jonathan Scott. Suggs could be living in the Steelers backfield, but with a spread offense they can nullify his effects and the Ravens' ability to send extra blitzers.

With five starting-caliber receivers on the roster and the Ravens consistency against the run, expect the Steelers to spread the field and put this football game in Ben Roethlisberger's hands.

The Ravens secondary isn't a major problem, but it remains unproven and doesn't have the depth to match up to all of the Steelers' receivers. The only way the Steelers offense doesn't put up points is if Bruce Arians shackles his team with his play calling and isn't aggressive enough.

Whether the Ravens or Steelers win the AFC North come December, both teams should be right up there competing. However, the Ravens need a bit more time before they are really ready to start the regular season and escape preseason form.

The Pittsburgh Steelers should continue Roethlisberger's dominance of Flacco over the recent years this Sunday and start off the season 1-0.