AFC North report: Pittsburgh at Baltimore

After opening with the Oakland Raiders at home, the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Baltimore. The Ravens are the Steelers' biggest rivals, sorry Cleveland, and both teams will be up for this game. How will the Steelers match-up against the team to beat in the AFC North?

For the most part, the Pittsburgh Steelers own the Baltimore Ravens. However, the rivalry does not feel one-sided at all. Almost without exception, the games are hard-fought and teams evenly matched, even when one team is experiencing a much better year than the other.

Last season was no exception.

Throw out the opener, when the Steelers trounced the Ravens 34-15, breaking the series' rule. Rookie Kyle Boller started and really struggled, as most young quarterbacks do against Pittsburgh's defensive scheme.

A harbinger of the bad season to come, the Steelers struggled to run the ball. Despite the lack of a running game, Tommy Maddox still had a big day. But teams would soon figure out that they did not need 8-in-the-box to stop the run as the offensive line fell apart, mostly due to injuries.

Pittsburgh started and ended the season against Baltimore. By Week 17, the Steelers were clearly horrible and the Ravens one of the biggest surprises of 2003. Baltimore was the better team, but you wouldn't know it by their ugly 13-10 OT victory. Baltimore's return to the playoffs after a brief absence did not look promising.

But the prospects for a better season in 2004 for the Steelers looked even worse. Pittsburgh turned the ball over 5 times in that final game. The running game continued to go nowhere, just 2.1 yards per attempt, and the opposing defense forced Maddox to run for his life all game long.

2002, when the Steelers swept the Ravens and North play, was a distant memory.

Offensively, the biggest difference between the two teams is at running back. Despite the injury problems for the Steelers, the offensive line for the two teams is comparable. Pittsburgh attempted 117 more passes than Baltimore yet yielded only one more sack (42).

Give the line of the Ravens some credit. Every opposing team stacked against the run, fearing neither Boller nor Anthony Wright. Still, Baltimore collected 4.8 yards per carry, tied for 3rd best in the NFL. The Steelers, on the other hand, were dead last at 3.3 yards per carry.

But Ravens OL was good, not great. The left side is anchored by future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden. LG Edwin Mulitalo is no slouch and Mike Flynn has proved more than capable at center. The right side is the main weakness, with Bennie Anderson fighting Casey Rabach for the starting RG position, and the erratic Orlando Brown at RT.

RB Jamal Lewis, however, was indeed great. A freak combination of strength, size and speed, Lewis would make any offensive line look good. Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue could not hold a candle to Lewis. Bettis no longer hits the hole with authority and Zereoue was cut because he was always trying to break the big run.

For the Steelers, the holes were there, they just didn't have the running back who could take advantage of them.

For the most part, Baltimore would stand pat on offense. The offensive line is essentially the same and Boller will be the starter at QB, Lewis the center of the game plan. The Ravens did add some talent at receiver in former Brown Kevin Johnson and promising rookie Devard Darling. Still, TE Todd Heap is the primary receiving threat, and a great one at that.

The Steelers will bring the safety up towards the line, most likely the year-wiser Troy Polamalu, and force Boller to beat them. The Ravens will counter with 3-receiver sets, even splitting out Heap, hoping to force the Steelers out of their base defense. Furthermore, pre-snap motion will be used to confuse the inexperienced safeties starting for Pittsburgh (Chris Hope and Polamalu).

Still, Baltimore's strength is pounding the football, tiring out the opposition while keeping its defense fresh. The run defense for Pittsburgh drops off dramatically when NT Casey Hampton needs a break. If the Ravens can sustain a few drives with a passing play here and there, the Steelers will be on their heels.

Pittsburgh seems to struggle a bit stopping the run out of the nickel, but Boller shouldn't command such a look this early in the season. The biggest difference for the Steelers will be the play at both safety positions. Despite on the rhetoric aimed at the Steelers poor pass defense, Hope and Polamalu actually significantly upgrade the run defense. These two are heavy hitters, playing their best ball close to the line of scrimmage.

If both teams are healthy, the Ravens will struggle to run the ball as well as they did during last year's second match-up. Just how effective Boller performs play action will determine just how successful Baltimore will be offensively.

Don't be surprised when the Steelers feed Boller a steady diet of run blitzing.

Turning the game around, the Steelers desperately need to establish the ground game against the Ravens' defense. Both teams struggled defending the pass in 2002. The main problem in Baltimore was the lack of a pass rush, just 33 sacks (22nd in the NFL). The Steelers managed 50 sacks (3rd), but still gave up yards in huge chunks. Both teams were in the top 10 for interceptions.

Baltimore set out to improve its pass rush by drafting Terrell Suggs. The result was 47 sacks, good for best in the league. The Steelers went the other way, managing just 34 sacks (19th).

The Ravens pride themselves on excellent run defense, forcing the opposition to take risks through the air. Thus, Baltimore's defense thrives on making big plays, finishing 4th in the NFL with 24 interceptions (Pittsburgh had only 14 picks, good enough for 20th).

The Steelers play right into the hands of the Ravens, no real threat at running back and the turnover-prone Maddox at QB. If Duce Staley doesn't have the step that Bettis has lost, Pittsburgh will go nowhere fast in 2004. Still, the place to attack Baltimore is in the secondary, home of Will Demps and ballhawk Ed Reed at safety and the overrated Chris McAlister and an aging Corey Fuller at corner.

If a healthy offensive line can buy Maddox some time, he can do some damage, even against the cover-2 he's likely to see. The Steeler might start with a fast break offense, sitting FB Dan Kreider on the bench and getting 3rd receiver Antwaan Randle El on the field more.

Staley is a great third down back. He picks up the blitz as well as anyone in the NFL and he's a great receiving threat out of the backfield. Staley may not so much be replacing Bettis as signaling a change in offensive philosophy.

Everyone expects offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to run the ball. How the Steelers do that may be the real surprise here.

Ray Lewis and the entire Baltimore Ravens defense are great tacklers. They swarm to the ball, but they can be overly aggressive at times. Reversing the field may help, but Baltimore has enough speed on defense to react effectively. The Steelers need to get the Ravens backing up, instead of rushing forward.

The key for the Ravens will be how well Suggs adjusts to life beyond situational rusher. The Steelers will look to exploit him in coverage, if Baltimore even bothers to try such a maneuver. It remains to be seen how well the outside linebackers will live up to the defensive traditions of the Ravens.

On special teams, the Steelers might retain a slight edge here. Coach Kevin Spencer had this bunch playing inspired football in 2003. The wildcard is PK Jeff Reed. Some rumblings that Reed played hurt last season and that he is not as bad as the numbers indicate. 2004 will determine if Reed indeed has a future in the NFL. At this point, the edge goes to Ravens kicker Matt Stover.

The Steelers now sport one of the best return games in the NFL, with Antwaan Randle El fielding punts and Ike Taylor and rookie Ricardo Colclough returning kicks. Baltimore's Lamont Brightful is a threat, but not in the same class as Randle El or Taylor.

Really, the game comes down to the play of Boller. If he can make the Steelers pay for selling out to stop Jamal Lewis, Pittsburgh will be in a Heap of trouble. Pittsburgh still matches up well against Baltimore, but the Ravens have more talent, particularly on defense.

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