Steelers vs. Ravens: What Are Experts Saying About Pittsburgh?

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2015

Steelers vs. Ravens: What Are Experts Saying About Pittsburgh?

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    One championship down, one to go for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    After winning four straight games, the Steelers were able to capture the AFC North title, but now they have their sights set on a bigger prize: a Super Bowl championship.

    In their first playoff appearance since the 2011 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open up against the hated Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night. It will be the fourth time these two have met in the playoffs, with the Steelers wining the previous three, all in Pittsburgh.

    As the NFL’s most heated rivalry is set to kick off, there are many opinions and storylines from experts around the league. Here is a look at some of the most interesting takes that the experts have ahead of this Wild Card matchup.

Jason La Canfora: Steelers Should Sit Troy Polamalu

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    The injury to Le’Veon Bell dominated most of the week’s headlines—and for good reason. As one of the top Pittsburgh players, his playing status will be crucial to the outcome of this game.

    However, there is another injured player who could be on his way back to the lineup even though it may not be best for the team. Troy Polamalu missed the last two games of the regular season, but he is on track to return for the opening round of the playoffs.

    On the Eye on Football Podcast, Ryan Wilson asked CBS Sports Insider Jason La Canfora if Polamalu should suit up on Saturday.

    "He shouldn't," La Canfora said. "I don't think (Troy or Ike) will play (even though) they are healthy enough. ... They're better with Ike and Cortez Allen not on the field, and they know they are. ... They'll keep inventing injuries for Troy but they need young legs on the field."

    Pittsburgh’s defense has performed well without their veteran defensive backs in the lineup. Over the past two games, the defense has nine sacks and has forced four turnovers.

    While part of the overall play can be contributed to the presence of Will Allen in the starting lineup, it must also be stated that he has not contributed directly to these turnovers. Instead, it has been a team effort from the pass rush and the secondary.

    Beyond what anyone else thinks, Dick LeBeau indicated that Polamalu would play on Saturday night. 

    Dick LeBeau said he expects Troy Polamalu to be ready to play vs Ravens.

    — Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) January 1, 2015

    Whether he starts or plays in a situational role, Polamalu can still contribute to this team and should be in uniform against the Ravens. He does not need to be an every-down player, but rather used near the line of scrimmage, where he can contribute against the run.

    The Steelers have come too far this season to not dress their 53 best players, and as of now, Polamalu still qualifies. He may only be a package player at this point of his career, but that is enough to help the Steelers on the field.

Marc Sessler: Martavis Bryant a Rookie to Watch

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    Each week, there is an X-factor to keep an eye on entering the game. Pittsburgh’s X-factor is no secret with Martavis Bryant having a breakout rookie season.

    Marc Sessler of NFL.com believes Bryant can help pick up the slack if Le’Veon Bell is not able to play:

    If Bell isn't able to play—or operate at full strength—Baltimore will turn its attention to shutting down Steelers wideout Antonio Brown. That could spring free Bryant, who has gone for 20 yards or more on 23 percent of his catches this season. With a pair of 100-yard outings on the year, the fourth-round wideout has a chance to produce against a less-than-stellar Ravens secondary. 

    Bryant has averaged 19.6 yards per reception on 13 receptions at home this season, including six touchdowns. The Ravens should keep a close eye on him after Bryant scored two touchdowns against them in the Steelers' 43-23 win back in November.

    Baltimore’s secondary ranks 23rd and is the clear weakness of the defense. Even though the Steelers will not completely abandon the ground game, they will certainly look to exploit the Ravens’ weakness on defense.

    Bryant will not get a majority of the targets from Ben Roethlisberger—those will obviously go to Antonio Brown—but he will get enough to make an impact play or two. Whether it is a deep ball or a look in the red zone, Bryant will be an impact player.

Vinnie Iyer: Steelers Should Make It a One-Dimensional Game

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    Le’Veon Bell’s playing status is certainly an important theme for this week, but rather than take the time to speculate on it, many analysts have examined what the Steelers could do without him in the lineup.

    Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News was no exception. He believes the Steelers should take an aggressive approach with Roethlisberger and their passing attack:

    The Ravens have the NFL's No. 4 run defense. They held a healthy Bell to 79 yards on 21 carries, total, in the two regular-season meetings, which the teams split. They also had the No. 2 pass rush with 49 sacks. Five of them came against Big Ben, who took a lot of abuse from Terrell Suggs and friends. The Steelers should spread the field with their wide receivers in a quick-strike passing game and stay aggressive. They should like their chances of forcing Joe Flacco into a one-dimensional shootout.

    The Steelers have the best receiver on the field in Antonio Brown and the depth to deliver multiple big pass plays. Roethlisberger and Flacco will use their mobility to buy time to get the ball downfield, but Big Ben will succeed more often. It’s his turn to get hot for a potential big playoff run.

    Baltimore does a great job stopping the run without stacking the box with eight and nine men. However, Bell has had some success against the Ravens.

    In his four games, Bell had 245 yards and averaged 4.38 yards per carry. Despite his overall success against Baltimore, he only had 21 carries against them this season and had just 20 yards in the last meeting.

    Without Bell’s presence as a threat in the passing game, the Steelers must keep the Ravens honest on defense by running the ball at least 20 times. But they will use this run to set up the pass and spread the field as Iyer suggested.

    Back in November, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns against the Ravens. Although he is unlikely to match these numbers—especially in the cold and rain predicted for Saturday night—he is still capable of throwing the ball over the Baltimore defense.

    The Steelers need to play to their strengths if they want to come out with a win, and luckily for them, their strength is one of the biggest weaknesses for the Ravens.

Ed Bouchette: Defense Can Carry the Steelers to a Win

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    One month ago, the thought of the defense pulling out a game for the Steelers was unfathomable. However, after allowing just 17.5 points per game over the final month of the season, it appears as though the defense is ready to step up.

    Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette believes the high level of play by the defense can carry over into the playoffs.

    "Just as the offense was—and did for the most part—carry the banner as its defense reorganized and took a step backward this season, a suddenly revived defense might be able to lend a hand in a time of need without their team MVP in Bell," Bouchette wrote.

    That defense has nine sacks in the past two games and four turnovers, including the two interceptions by cornerback Brice McCain and the fumble Sunday by A.J. Green caused by cornerback Antwon Blake. McCain saved a score with his first interception and set up a score with his second. Blake’s forced fumble late in the game prevented the Bengals from tying it or possibly taking the lead.

    Between the upgraded pass rush and the improved play of the defensive backfield, Pittsburgh’s defense looks as though it will not be a complete liability entering the postseason.

    Getting to Flacco will be tough, as he has only been sacked 19 times this year. The Steelers picked up four of these sacks in their last meeting. Two of them came from James Harrison, who looked to be in vintage form.

    As long as they can get to Flacco, the deep ball—a big weakness for the Pittsburgh secondary—will be limited. Without this in their arsenal, the Ravens will have a tough time scoring touchdowns on the Steelers.

Bleacher Report Experts: Steelers Will Win

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    Anything can happen in playoff football, especially when the game is between two heated rivals. The Steelers and Ravens have already split the season series, and the third meeting could go either way.

    Despite the rivalry aspect to this game and the relatively even matchup on the field, the experts at Bleacher Report believe the Steelers will win this game. As summarized by Gary Davenport, each Bleacher Report expert picked the Steelers to defeat the Ravens.

    AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst believes Pittsburgh’s overall talent will be the difference:

    The Steelers will likely be without their leading rusher, Le'Veon Bell, on Saturday night, but this may be the one playoff matchup they can thrive in without him. Baltimore's biggest weakness is its secondary, which means the Steelers can lean on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and uncoverable receiver Antonio Brown.

    Pittsburgh's big weakness is also its secondary, but the Ravens' weapons in the passing game don't present the same threat as the Steelers' do. This is going to be a fight—how can it not be, with two divisional rivals trying to stay alive in the postseason—but the talent scales tip in the Steelers' favor this week.

    I would not expect all 16 NFL experts to select the Steelers in this game, but if all agree with Hangst, it makes sense.

    Even without Bell, Mike Tomlin's team is playing very well and has the edge at quarterback and wide receiver. With two similar defenses, the Steelers can rely on their elite playmakers—even without Bell—to carry them to their first playoff win since the 2010 season.

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.  

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