Starks is filling in for Marvel Smith, who had back surgery this week. Starks played well in Smith's absence against St. Louis, but he's facing a premier pass rusher in Suggs. The Steelers' offense will present a different look than it did in Pittsburgh's 38-7 thrashing of Baltimore in Week 8. Starks will be protecting QB Charlie Batch's blindside, as Ben Roethlisberger is resting an ankle injury. RB Najeh Davenport replaces Willie Parker, who broke his leg against St. Louis.
Suggs is in his final game of his rookie contract, and is said to be looking for a contract that would land him among the highest paid at his position in the league. He has five sacks this season, and has to be looking forward to the opportunity to go against Starks – not the most nimble tackle in the NFL. His disruption on the outside likely would command a double-team, opening up the struggling Steelers interior protection.
In Week 16, Roethlisberger was able to stretch the field vertically, partially because he had a little more time than usual on his deeper reads, but partially because of the inexperience of the Rams secondary. Batch doesn't have the same arm strength as Roethlisberger, but the Ravens do have two very inexperienced corners (Corey Ivy and Willie Gaston) starting over veterans Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister (both on the IR). Pittsburgh's game-plan didn't change at all last week after Parker went down on the first carry. Batch will still look to exploit a mismatch if his more athletic receivers are able to break a jam at the line.
Reed and Landry will have to respect this deep threat, as the massive amounts of injuries on both sides of the ball greatly limit their ability to overcome mistakes. Reed is one of the game's best playmakers, and while Landry's best skills are in run support, he's still going to be responsible, at times, to handle a Steelers receiver or tight end. They will have to assist with the Ravens strong rush defense while maintaining a presence in the deep secondary.
The Steelers are likely to be without SS Troy Polamalu, but Smith – making the second start of his career – will be without RB Willis McGahee, TE Todd Heap and WR Demetrius Williams, the three biggest playmakers on the team. In Polamalu's absence, Farrior becomes the Steelers most versatile defender. Both he and LB Larry Foote have had a good amount of success when the Steelers have brought both of them on a fire blitz, and the savvy Farrior has played well in coverage all season.
Smith was a paltry 17-of-33 for 199 yards in his first start, with 79 of those yards – and his lone touchdown pass – coming on a 79-yard run-and-catch by WR Derrick Mason in garbage time of a 27-6 loss at Seattle. The Steelers will use Farrior dynamically, mixing coverage and a pass rush to throw the rookie off balance. He hasn't thrown an interception in 49 pass attempts, and protecting the ball will be paramount if the Ravens want to end their nine-game losing streak.
Roethlisberger was on fire in their Week 8 meeting, thus not putting much pressure on Mahan to control the A-gap, but with a lesser-talented Batch behind him, Mahan is going to have a tough time sealing off his assignment. Davenport is at his best running inside, and successfully establishing running room there has plagued the Steelers all season. Mahan has to get a push on the line to take pressure off Batch.
Ngata and Gregg make up one of the more underrated defensive tackle combinations in the league, anchoring a run defense that allows 81 yards per game – second in the NFL. Their ability to stack the line of scrimmage is as good as any other tandem, and will give the Steelers' interior offensive line fits all game. If they can neutralize Davenport by controlling the line of scrimmage, they will force Batch to win this game with his arm – and he hasn't started a game since Week 1 of the 2006 season.
|The Coolong Scorecard|