1. Will rookie quarterback Joe Flacco be up to the task in his first road game?
As the Baltimore Ravens (2-0) take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) Monday night at Heinz Field with first-place in the AFC North at stake, the first-round draft pick will undoubtedly be tested by Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's intricate blitz packages, confusing coverage schemes and, of course, the loud noise generated by a raucous crowd. Flacco has displayed a lot of poise during his first two starts, but this will be an extremely hostile environment.
Plus, he has to contend with a veteran defense ranked second overall in the league behind the Ravens' top-ranked unit. Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is expected to stick with an understandably conservative game plan of passing just enough to keep the defense honest while relying upon his committee of running backs to move the football and control the clock. There will be at least a few moments where Flacco will be asked to deliver some spirals to move the ball. Ironically, he makes his first road start in the city where he never felt like he got a legitimate shot to be a college starter. The University of Pittsburgh coaching staff opted for local product Tyler Palko over Flacco. From a pass protection standpoint, it's critical that the Ravens' offensive tackles, Jared Gaither and Adam Terry, wall off outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Harrison had three 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception in a 38-7 win over Baltimore last year.
2. Will the Ravens be able to keep up the heat on Big Ben?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked eight times in a 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles as a barrage of blitzes familiarized him with the turf at Lincoln Financial Field. The Ravens are hoping for similar results even though they run a 4-3 as opposed to the Eagles' 3-4. The Ravens feature pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce and also are willing to bring defensive backs up to attack the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger has been sacked at least three times in 11 of his past 15 games, and the Steelers are 1-4 when he has been sacked six times. Even backup Byron Leftwich was sacked last week for a ninth sack when Roethlisberger left the game with a sore hand.
3. Will the Ravens be able to maintain their running game?
The Steelers have the NFL's second-ranked run defense, but are missing starting nose guard Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel due to injuries. The Ravens feature the league's second-ranked rushing offense, averaging 190 yards per contest with the second-most rushing touchdowns with five scores on the ground. The Steelers are tough to run against because of middle linebacker James Farrior's range and tackling ability. This marks the first true test of the Ravens' running game because they rushed for 380 yards against two of the league's worst run defenses.
4. Can the Ravens get tight end Todd Heap involved?
Heap has dropped a couple of passes, including a touchdown, and lost one fumble and has just three catches for 28 yards. He remains the Ravens' top deep threat, though. The Ravens need someone to stretch the defense since they haven't completed a pass over 19 yards this season despite Flacco's arm strength. Heap is their top candidate to get behind the secondary since speedy wide receiver Demetrius Williams has been hobbled by injuries.
5. Can a banged-up secondary prevent the deep pass?
Last year, Roethlisberger uncorked a franchise-record five touchdown passes in that embarrassing Monday night victory over the Ravens last year. The Ravens were missing both starting cornerbacks in that game. This time, they may only be without Samari Rolle. He's considered to be a game-time decision with shoulder and neck problems. McAlister's right knee remains a question mark, and nickel back Fabian Washington has been dealing with a bulging disc in his neck. Roethlisberger has the arm to strike deep, and wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are dangerous threats outside.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. Steelers S Troy Polamalu
In his initial road game that will test his discipline, accuracy and decision-making, Flacco will have to contend with one of the most aggressive, active safeties in the league. The four-time Pro Bowl selection has already intercepted three passes, picking off a pass in each of the first three games. The Steelers will try to bait Flacco into poor decisions and are liable to involve Polamalu in blitz packages.
Ravens CB Chris McAlister vs. Steelers WR Hines Ward
This represents a critical matchup as the Ravens' top shutdown cornerback will take on a Pro Bowl wide receiver that he has struggled against in the past, particularly against his crisp double moves and post corner routes. McAlister has the requisite size and speed to stop Ward, but will need help over the top from free safety Ed Reed on deep routes. Ward is dangerous in the red zone with 36 career touchdowns, and is tied with the most touchdowns inside opponents' 20-yard line since 2002.
THREE DOWNS WITH ...
Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis
1. On if the Steelers are struggling offensively: "I just think last week Philly had a great game plan against them. If you see the scheme that they drew up, they had a lot of open runners coming free. Of course, they're going to go back and correct whatever there is to correct. So, if you try to go and emulate the same thing, then you can get beat doing the same thing.
"I just think, truly, that we just need to come out play to our identity. If that's pressuring people, pressure them. If that's just staying in zone, stay in zone. We just need to go in with our game plan and stick to it, and I think everything else will just take care of itself."
2. On the effect Dawan Landry's spinal cord injury had on the team: "You forget the game, because it's just a game. Any time you see a brother laying down there on the ground, that's not a good sight. You try to focus back and you do kind of, but it lingers in your mind.
"It reminds you how fragile life is. Life is a very precious thing. When you see somebody down like that, helpless, it's not a good sight. As teammates, we really had to pick each other up, on both sides."
3. On whether he views this as a statement game: "We don't want no coming-out party. All we want to do is just play football. It doesn't matter, man. I've told the guys in our Super Bowl year we weren't picked one time to win a game.
"So, who cares? Just go play 60 minutes of football, no matter who's watching. Just be who you are, and life will take care of itself and the game will take care of itself."
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward
1. On the bad blood between these teams: "All in all, we know it's going to be a physical game. We're not going out there to try to hurt each other, you know, end somebody's career. At the same time, we know you've got to strap up your helmet and get ready to put on a physical game."
2. On his rivalry with Bart Scott: "Out on the field, you're going to have a war of words. Guys are going to talk about your mother, talk about anything to try to get up under your skin. We played with one of the best of them in the league: Joey Porter.
"Words don't hurt me,' or whatever. I'm pretty sure if I see Bart out in the street, outside of football, I'm pretty sure he's not going to kill me." Tell him I said, ‘Hello.'"
3. On Joe Flacco making his road first start at Heinz Field: "It's going to be very difficult. So, this is going to be his first challenge coming into hostile territory on primetime. I'm pretty sure, defensively, we're going to try to contain him, and try to put it in his hands to try to win the ball game."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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