Steelers vs. Ravens Preview: 4 Things to Watch in Week 1 Matchup

Ravi LullaAnalyst ISeptember 9, 2011

Steelers vs. Ravens Preview: 4 Things to Watch in Week 1 Matchup

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    One of the premier matchups in the first week of the NFL regular season is the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Baltimore Ravens.  These two teams will be battling for the AFC North title all season and, perhaps at the end of the year, for the AFC championship as well.

    There are plenty of things to dissect in opening week games as you try to determine how good a team really is.  Here are the four things you should be watching for in this battle between the Steelers and Ravens.

Can Lee Evans Help Joe Flacco Stretch the Field?

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    The Baltimore Ravens acquired Lee Evans from the Buffalo Bills to give their still-young quarterback Joe Flacco a legitimate deep threat.  It will be interesting to see if Evans' ability to stretch the field will help Flacco take his game to the next level.

    With Evans now added to the mix, Flacco has quite the arsenal of weapons at his disposal.  Lining up across from Evans at wide receiver will still be Anquan Boldin, and Ray Rice is developing into one of the league's best running backs.

    As long as Evans can bring even the threat of going deep to the Ravens offense, the rest of the field should open up for Rice and Boldin.

Will Jimmy Smith Help Bolster the Ravens' Pass Defense?

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    Don't look now, but the once-dominating Baltimore Ravens defense has started to slip.  In 2010, it ranked 21st in the league in passing yards allowed per game.  The only elite player left in the Ravens' secondary is Ed Reed, whose age and health have started to raise questions.

    The addition of Jimmy Smith injects a much-needed dose of youth and superb coverage skills into Baltimore's defense.  If Smith can quickly adapt to the NFL game, he should be able to help shore up the Ravens' pass defense.

    One thing to watch for with Smith is how he deals with the off-field part of being an NFL player.  There were some questions about his character before the draft, which is why he was available for the Ravens at the back end of the first round.  At the very least it is a situation that should be monitored.

Can Rashard Mendenhall Be More Effective in 2011?

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    At first glance this may seem like a ridiculous question.  Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall had more than 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, which makes it hard to ask him to be more effective.

    If you take a closer look, though, Mendenhall averaged fewer than four yards per carry, which is quite frankly just not very good.  In 2009 Mendenhall averaged 4.6 yards per carry, obviously a much better rate.

    The biggest difference for Mendenhall between 2009 and 2010 was his workload.  He had more than 80 more carries over the course of 2010 than he did in 2009, and I don't see his workload decreasing any in 2011.  The key for Mendenhall will be to sustain a higher yards per carry average while still receiving the higher number of carries.

Will Ben Roethlisberger Be Able to Keep His Interceptions to a Minimum?

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    Last year Ben Roethlisberger had a phenomenal touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17 to 5.  It was the first season in which Roethlisberger attempted more than 300 passes that he had a single-digit interception total.

    However, in three postseason games Roethlisberger threw almost as many interceptions (four) as he did in 12 regular-season games.  His two interceptions in the Super Bowl could have made the difference in a game that was decided by only six points.

    This is by no means saying the Steelers' Super Bowl loss was Roethlisberger's fault, but the interceptions certainly did not help.  If the Pittsburgh signal caller can keep his interceptions down, not only against Baltimore but in crucial games down the road, the Steelers will be in much better shape.