If Boller isn't overwhelmed by pressure in his NFL debut Sunday, gets adequate pass protection and his receivers gain separation, the Steelers could be vulnerable downfield. Especially with All-Pro outside linebacker Joey Porter out after being wounded in a drive-by shooting last weekend. Beating the blitz on a quick slant or a fly pattern can lead directly to points because of single coverage caused by flooding the line of scrimmage with extra bodies.
"That's the key," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I've always said it's a receiver's job to make them play two-deep because at that point you should have a certain amount of success running against a normal seven-man box. "The running game, your job, is to make them play in the box or blitz you and then it's back in the receivers' and the quarterbacks' court. That's an equation that has been time-tested and certainly will probably present itself on Sunday."
A year ago, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' unit led the AFC with 50 sacks and stuffed the run better than anyone in the league. A negative trend arose, though, as a gambling style and a secondary that lacked ideal speed led to allowing 345 points, an average of 21.6 per contest. That's the most points surrendered by a Steelers team since 1988's franchise-record 421 points on a 5-11 squad. Over the Steelers' final three games last year, including a 34-31 victory over Baltimore in the regular-season finale, they gave up 98 points. Third downs became a struggle when Pittsburgh didn't sack the quarterback, ranking 27th at giving up first downs on third down for a 43.6 percent clip. This sets up a bit of gamesmanship between Lewis and the strategy of Billick, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and quarterbacks coach David Shaw.
Can Baltimore keep the Steelers honest on Sunday? "When Pittsburgh blitzes, they kind of always turn it into a zone and there are always open holes," receiver Travis Taylor said. "I think coach Cavanaugh and coach Shaw did a great job of coaching Kyle up to find the open holes, and I think he will." Two years ago, Pittsburgh had the top-rated defense in the league and allowed 212 points for the lowest total in the AFC. "The secondary isn't what it used to be," said ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, a former Steelers running back. "They have to get it together back there and they haven't. The chemistry hasn't formed, and I'm not sure they have enough speed back there to get the job done."
Pittsburgh returns veteran cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington, and upgraded its speed by dumping safety Lee Flowers after he lost several steps. Now, Pittsburgh pairs Mike Logan and first-round draft pick Troy Polamalu next to free safety Brent Alexander. Polamalu had a history of concussions and hamstring pulls at USC, but carries a reputation as an enforcer with 4.3 speed. "I think their secondary is good," receiver Marcus Robinson said. "They have some hitters and guys who will stand their ground. You can't just look at what they did last year. This year could be totally different."
The potential drawback to the Ravens' plan is the possibility of only having three healthy wide receivers since starter Frank Sanders is listed as doubtful. That means Robinson would start opposite Taylor with Ron Johnson coming off the bench. Of course, the Ravens can always line up Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap anywhere from slot receiver to split end. The key is, when appropriate, if Baltimore can meet the Steelers' defensive aggression with offensive countermoves. "You've got to use your judgment," Boller said. "You can't tell yourself I'm not going to throw this ball in there because I don't want this to happen. You've got to go out and let your instincts take over."
Aaron Wilson writes for The Carroll County Times