From Many Key Matchups, There's One

Mark Kaboly takes us through the matchup that'll matter most this afternoon at Heinz Field.

Go ahead, throw out an individual matchup between the Steelers and Ravens and it's going to be quite important:

* Ben Roethlisberger against Ed Reed.

* Rashard Mendenhall against Ray Lewis.

* Jonathan Scott/Flozell Adams against Terrell Suggs.

* James Harrison against Michael Oher.

* Joe Flacco against Troy Polamalu.

* Ray Rice against James Farrior.

* Anquan Boldin against Bryant McFadden.

* Mike Tomlin against John Harbaugh.

Take your pick and it's a monumental matchup that's going to determine who moves on to next week's title game and who goes home.

Still, none of them are as critical as Mike Wallace's matchup against Lardarius Webb. This one CANNOT be lost because the losing team will lose the game.

For the Steelers to win the game, Wallace has to beat Webb for a big play or two.

For the Ravens, to win the game, Webb has to contain Wallace from making a game-altering play or two.


"I'm ready, baby," said Wallace, who has never played in a playoff game and took part in only one bowl game while in college at Mississippi. "I know the playoffs are where players make a name for themselves. So let's go."

It's quite a simple theory of why Wallace has to be the difference maker against the Ravens.

These two teams are so evenly matched across the board (five of the past six games have been decided by three points of fewer) that the difference is going to be who makes the most big plays. Or with these defenses, the team that makes the one big play.

As we all know by now, Wallace makes big plays. That's what he does.

Nearly half of his 60 catches on the season went for 20 yards or more. He led the league in yards per reception as a rookie and was second this year.

Add that to the Ravens' defense giving up a number of long pass plays this year (52 pass plays of 20 yards or more) and Wallace could be in store for a game-altering performance that would propel him to the role of the new leader of the wideouts (like he's not already).

Big plays were decisive factors in both games this year. Flacco's late touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in September gave Baltimore the win and Polamalu's strip-sack that led to the Steelers' only touchdown of the game last month in a 13-10 win.

Wallace making big plays to propel the Steelers' offense looks good on paper, but it just may be a little more difficult than that, especially if things go like last week.

A strong trend during Wildcard Weekend was the ability of teams taking away the opponents best receiver. All four teams that lost last week – New Orleans, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia – had its playmaking receiver shut down.

In fact, five of the top 15 receivers in the league during the regular season combined for 18 targets and only 9 catches a week ago – Marques Colston 4-66; Dwayne Bowe 0-0; Reggie Wayne 1-1; DeSean Jackson 2-47; Greg Jennings 1-8.

Bowe, who led the NFL with 15 touchdowns this year, wasn't targeted once, and that had a lot to do with Webb.

Webb has done a good job of covering Wallace in their two meeting this year. Wallace hasn't caught a touchdown pass and has seven catches in two games against Baltimore.

The reason why is because of Webb's speed.

Before tearing his ACL late last year, Webb was clocked at 4.3 in the 40. Wallace ran the same distance in 4.33 during the combine when coming out of college.

Even though they have virtually the same speed, Wallace will run by Webb. That's going to happen, no doubt. The question will be whether or not Roethlisberger can get the ball to Wallace and whether or not Webb can recover in time to make a play when he does get beat.

Webb did that during the first meeting when he caught up to Wallace to knock the football down in the end zone after Wallace broke free.

It was one of a handful of times that Webb's aggressiveness got him in trouble against the Steelers the first time around. But in every instance, he was able to recover, and that ultimately was why the Ravens won that game.

Webb is very aggressive. He supports the run as well as any cornerback in the league and has been used in blitz packages more and more.

While that's all good for the Ravens' defense as a whole, it shows that Webb may be a little too aggressive for his own good.

Against normal receivers, a false step doesn't mean much. Against Wallace, that's all he needs – if that – to get open.

You better believe the Steelers are well aware of Webb's style and will try to set him up with wide receiver screens early in the game to set up a shot down the field.

And remember, one big play can be a difference with two teams this close in skill set and knowledge of each other.

While Roethlisberger vs. Reed might be the sexy matchup, it's going to be a couple of second-year guys who are still all wet behind the ears who are going to be the difference in this one.

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