This game is going to come down to third-down conversions, and it's in that stat the Ravens hold the most glaring advantage of the game. The rookie Flacco is only completing 58 percent of his passes, but he's leading Baltimore to a 43 percent conversion rate on third downs. Roethlisberger and the Steelers are at 31 percent – 24th in the NFL. Defensively, the Ravens are only allowing 19 percent of all third-down opportunities to be converted, while the Steelers are allowing a modest 41 percent.
This game will be more about the running games and strong defenses, but the passer who is able to move the chains on third downs will likely determine the outcome. Roethlisberger has better skill position players to work with, but Flacco has stayed within himself and gotten great play from his offensive line. It's the main reason behind the Ravens' shocking 37-22 time of possession advantage in their first two games this year.
NT Chris Hoke vs. C Jason Brown
The Ravens are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL so far this season, and it's almost entirely due to the outstanding play of their offensive line. Brown has been solid the big defensive tackles he's been up against in two games (Cleveland's Shaun Rogers and Cincinnati's Domata Peko and John Thornton. It has helped pave the way for the three-headed running attack of Willis McGaheen, La'Ron McClain and Ray Rice, who are averaging 190 yards a game.
Hoke replaces Casey Hampton, the 2007 Pro Bowl tackle who out-weighs Hoke by at least 30 pounds. Hoke's game is about quickness off the snap and a lack of wasted movement. He can beat his opponent to a spot off the snap, and is relentless in pursuit. He's no Hampton, but if Hoke can utilize his speed to get the penetration Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense thrives off of, he can force the running backs to run right into the talented group of linebackers waiting for them.
OLB James Harrison vs. LT Jared Gaither
Harrison had one of the finest individual defensive performances in team history last season against Baltimore. Incidentally, that game was also on Monday night. The Ravens cut Harrison at one point in his career, so perhaps that was motivation, but 10 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception is ridiculous. The Ravens had no answer for him running or passing.
Enter Gaither, who replaces the legendary Jonathon Ogden. They don't seem to miss him on the field. The Ravens are running as well as ever, and they've given up just one sack. However, they know their slow-footed quarterback is in serious trouble if they cannot contain the explosive Harrison in pass protection. Judging by Flacco's paltry 5.4 yards per completion average, he doesn't figure to hold onto the ball very long anyway, and will certainly test Harrison and ROLB LaMarr Woodley in coverage in the flats.
LG Chris Kemoeatu vs. ILB Bart Scott
While OLB Terrell Suggs vs. LT Marvel Smith is a big match-up as well, the Ravens flash remnants of the 46 Defense and will overload a side with down linemen. Scott is a particularly adept pass rusher from the inside or outside, and if Suggs goes after Smith, Scott is going to have a chance to explode the pocket by going right at Kemoeatu, who's a better run blocker than pass protector.
Kemoeatu and Smith had communication problems against Philadelphia, and much of the pressure put on Roethlisberger came from precision and well-timed blitzes than straight-up overpowering pass rushes. Expect the Ravens to come after Roethlisberger through any means possible and on any down. Scott will join Suggs on the outside, but expect fire blitzes right at Kemoeatu to shrink the pocket and force rookie RB Rashard Mendenall – starting in place of injured Willie Parker – to the outside.
|The Coolong Scorecard|
Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.