Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. How physical will this encounter get between two archrivals? Characterizing the rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers usually stretches the limits of hyperbole, but Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward takes it to another level of brutal truth. "The coaches hate each other," he said. "The players hate each other."

"It's going to be one of those black-and blue games," Ward added.
It usually is a bruising encounter, particularly considering what's at stake with the Ravens (8-2) leading the AFC North by three games and Pittsburgh (4-6) on the verge of playoff elimination with the dimmest of postseason hopes still flickering. The defending Super Bowl champions are on a two-game winning streak, and Baltimore has won its past four and is chasing home-field advantage in the playoffs. This is a classic parking lot game, as in these teams would play each other anywhere, anytime, even in a parking lot filled with broken glass.
2. Can the Ravens shut down the Steelers' running game? The defense shut down the Atlanta Falcons' top-ranked rushing attack last week, limiting them to 50 yards. Although Fast Willie Parker is a formidable threat, the Steelers generated just 57 rushing yards against a Cleveland run defense that had been abused all year. If Ray Lewis is playing and close to his normal tackling capacity, this matchup could become academic. Without Lewis, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan might have to resort to his 'Steeler package' of three defensive linemen and five linebackers.
3. How many interceptions will Ben Roethlisberger throw? He leads the NFL with 17 interceptions after a messy offseason where he nearly died in a motorcycle accident. Perhaps his sense of timing or nerve have been affected. Roethlisberger is likely to play more conservatively. He's likely to go after the nickel and dime backs along with starting cornerback Samari Rolle. Santonio Holmes is on a roll, and tight end Heath Miller has always given Baltimore trouble in the red zone.
4. Will Jamal Lewis repeat last week's eye-opening performance? Lewis tied a career-high with three touchdown runs last week, running with verve, power and a touch of acceleration. The Steelers will pay him the respect of assigning eight defenders in the box. They have the linebackers, including James Farrior and Joey Porter, to corral him in the open field. The Ravens might need right guard Keydrick Vincent (groin) to return today against a heftier front seven. Rookie Chris Chester played solidly last week, but didn't really move anyone out of the way.
5. Can the Ravens exploit the Steelers' secondary? Steve McNair will try to isolate Mark Clayton against Ike Taylor, who has been getting used for target practice. The Steelers have allowed far too much production to opposing receivers and haven't done a great job against tight ends, either. Todd Heap against Troy Polamalu represents a matchup against two of the best in the game, and should be worth TIVOing. If Daniel Wilcox is out with a hamstring pull, it could affect the Ravens' red-zone package.
Inside slant
Mark Clayton has established career-high personal records with 46 receptions and 591 yards to top his record-breaking rookie benchmarks. Over the last three games, Clayton has caught 20 passes for 287 yards and touchdown with his reception total tying Chad Johnson for the most in the AFC in that span. He leads the AFC with 20 third-down catches.
Today's Key Matchups
Ravens OT Jonathan Ogden vs.
Steelers LB Joey Porter
Contrasting personal styles define this critical encounter as the towering, laid-back Ogden takes on the fire-breathing, smack-talking and fast Steelers pass rusher. Porter thrives on getting personal with opponents, Ogden keeps it strictly business. He's having another All-Pro year.
Ravens S Ed Reed vs.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 17 interceptions, one less than the Ravens, an opportunistic bunch that leads the entire league in interceptions with 18. Reed tends to make passers pay who force the football into heavy traffic.
Steelers Confidential
Three downs with ...
Bill Cowher
Steelers head coach
1. On struggling after winning the Super Bowl: "That's the NFL. When we came back to training camp, we all recognized you have to start all over again. We haven't gotten off to the start that we wanted. We've lost some close games and some winnable games. Some of those same games that we've lost, Baltimore has won in the last minute. That's what separates teams."
2. On Brian Billick calling plays: "Brian is obviously one of the better signal-callers in the league. That's what he did up in Minnesota when he had those weapons. Obviously, since he's taken over, they're averaging 28 points a game. He is very good at what he does. He's a good head coach, as well. I've got a lot of respect for Brian Billick, for what he has done, what he stands for."
3. On what this season has been like for him: "Personally, I don't look at it any differently. You have to prove yourself every year and I have never been one to rest on any laurels or take yourself too seriously. We all have to prove ourselves every year that you go out there. That's part of who you are and you get defined as to where you are now, not what you've done."
Ravens Confidential
Three downs with ...
Derrick Mason
Ravens wide receiver
1. On the change as an offense under Brian Billick: "We, as an offense, are executing now. The first half of the season, we were not executing and you can't fault anybody.
"But there are 11 guys on our offense, and plays are going to be called and you're either going to execute them, or you're not. In the first six or seven games, we weren't executing and now we are."
2. On having a versatile offense: "In order to be a potent offense, you have to have more than just one or two guys getting the ball all the time. We have four guys who can go out there and really get the job done so they don't know who to key on.
3. On Thanksgiving memories: "I would go outside and play football. But obviously I can't do that now. I'm too old and I have a real job now. I enjoy and appreciate my two children, my wife, and we're going to have fun. I might take my little boy out, just to start something, take him out and rough him up a little bit and bring him back in the house if it's not too cold because momma doesn't like him going out in the cold. Other than that, just sit around and eat and watch."
How the Ravens can win
1. Exploit Ben Roethlisberger. He's dangerous to himself (Re: Motorcycle accident, 17 interceptions) and opponents. The Ravens have the capability to fluster the streaky young quarterback.
2. Stop the run. If the Ravens contain Fast Willie Parker, it will force Roethlisberger to go to the air to move the football. That could play right into defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's game plan.
3. Throw it often. The Steelers' pass defense is so poor that Bill Cowher has already benched one cornerback. Troy Polamalu's concussion problems have him playing less aggressively than usual, robbing the team of an intimidation factor.
How the Steelers can win
1. Go after Samari Rolle. Rolle said he's done conducting interviews for the year, but that won't hide him from opposing quarterbacks. Although he recorded a sack and covered better last week, he gave up another touchdown pass against the Falcons.
2. Run the football. If Ray Lewis misses his third game in a row, Fast Willie Parker could benefit from his absence as the Ravens' defense hasn't been as stingy without the seven-time All-Pro middle linebacker.
3Throw it to Hines Ward. Even when the feisty wideout isn't 100 percent, he usually owns cornerback Chris McAlister emotionally and physically.
3. Throw it to Hines Ward. Even when the feisty wideout isn't 100 percent, he usually owns cornerback Chris McAlister emotionall and physically.
Total (22) Rushing (25) Passing (16)
Since Brian Billick began calling the plays, the Ravens are 4-0 and Steve McNair has passed for 1,013 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions for a 95.7 passer rating. He had five touchdowns and seven interceptions under Jim Fassel.
Running backs
Jamal Lewis delivered a rebuttal last week to critics that insisted he was washed up. Was his three-touchdown outburst a return to form or an aberration against a banged-up defense that looked like it quit in the second half?
Every week, a different receiver has emerged as the chosen target with distribution of passes increasing markedly over the past month. Only Chad Johnson has caught as many passes as Mark Clayton with 20 receptions apiece over the past three weeks.
Offensive line
Steve McNair has been sacked an average of once per game over the past month. All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden has regained his old form, shutting down Simeon Rice, Shawne Merriman, Justin Smith, Will Smith, Mike Rucker and Ebenever Ekuban.
Total (2) Rushing (3) Passing (8)
Defensive line There are loud whispers at One Winning Drive lobbying for Pro Bowl inclusion for underrated nose guard Kelly Gregg. Defensive end Trevor Pryce sacked Michael Vick twice last week. Terrell Suggs has strung together two consecutive strong outings.
Ray Lewis will likely be a game-time decision as he deals with the aftermath of a severely bruised back that has kept him out for two games. Adalius Thomas is performing as if he's acutely aware that he's in a contract year. He's going to get big dollars either from the Ravens or some other willing suitor.
If Hines Ward plays today, Chris McAlister needs to be wary of the double-move and post corner route along with controlling his emotions. Ward usually gets under McAlister's skin. Ed Reed could be a big factor.
Matt Stover is eager to start another extended streak after snapping his run of 36 consecutive field goals in last week's 24-10 win over Atlanta. Return specialist B.J. Sams is coming off an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week performance. Now, he gets to play against the NFL's worst kickoff team and the third-worst punt coverage team.
Total (5) Rushing (13) Passing (4)
Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 17 interceptions. The Ravens' defense leads the league with 18 interceptions. This isn't a good combination for the Steelers. Bill Cowher is likely to have Roethlisberger employ a cautious approach.
Running backs
Fast Willie Parker has a dozen total touchdowns and rushed for over 200 yards against the New Orleans Saints. His speed is a major cause for concern. He tends to be a decisive runner who picks a hole and hits it.
Hines Ward is a gamer, but a hyperextended knee could limit his effectiveness and involvement today. That could mean an increased role for speedy first-round draft pick Santonio Holmes (29 catches, 455 yards, one score) along with above-average tight end Heath Miller.
Offensive line
The Steelers have allowed 30 sacks. A road-grading group, they seem to lack the footwork at the tackle spots for ideal pass protection. Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings are tough customers inside.
Total (12) Rushing (8) Passing (19)
Defensive line Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton are two of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Hampton is a particularly tough assignment for center Mike Flynn because of his strength, bulk and quickness. Smith has rare intensity.
One of the most active, hard-hitting linebacking corps, they pride themselves on running to the football and arriving in a nasty mood. Farrior is an extremely versatile, mobile inside linebacker, and Joey Porter and Clark Haggans are dangerous pass rushers.
They have struggled a lot, especially Ike Taylor, allowing 14 touchdown passes and an average of 7.04 yards per attempt. Safety Troy Polamalu is in Ed Reed's territory as a play-maker and represents the glue that holds this defense together.
Kicker Jeff Reed is having a terrible season, converting just 12 of 17 field goals. Punter Chris Gardocki is averaging 42.5 yards and is a decent directional kicker. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes has explosive potential as a return man, but is too prone to fair catches on punt returns and has cost the Steelers field position.
EDGES: Quarterback: Ravens; Running back: Steelers; Offensive line: Ravens; Receivers; Ravens; Defensive line: Ravens; Linebackers: Steelers; Secondary: Ravens; Special teams: Ravens.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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