Key Match-ups: Steelers-Ravens

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.

FS Ryan Clark vs. QB Joe Flacco

As Steelers LB Larry Foote said, "Flacco ain't no rookie." He is, he just doesn't play like one. He isn't putting up Tom Brady-like numbers, but he isn't making mistakes. The Ravens have won based on that fact. When he has to complete a big pass, he's delivered, more often than not. In the AFC Championship game, though, he'll be faced with a defense that can take away the deep ball. Minus a huge 48-yard completion to Mark Clayton, Flacco was 10-for-21 for 113 yards in their Divisional round win at Tennessee. Baltimore loses that game without that throw to Clayton, they don't win the game.

Of the big throws Flacco has made, especially to Clayton, he has a tendency to want to underthrow it and let his speedy receiver come back to the ball after he's beaten his man deep. Tennessee FS Chris Hope took a deep angle, and was undercut by Clayton, leading to the Ravens only touchdown. Clark needs to be disciplined in his angle when the ball is in the air, and if he sees the corner in stride with the receiver, he may be able to gamble and cut in front of him, expecting a shorter pass. It could pay dividends, considering how fierce of a defensive game this will be. Any opportunity either team gets with a turnover will play a big factor in the result.

OLB James Harrison vs. LT Jared Gaither

Harrison hasn't been a stranger to this list all season. The Defensive Player of the Year should be a key match-up for any opponent, and judging by Harrison's history of success against Baltimore (six sacks and an interception in his past four games), he'll be a main concern of Gaither's. Harrison's presence has been either enhanced by emerging LB LaMarr Woodley on the other side, or Woodley has helped draw attention away from him. Together, they've been a formidable combination all season, but the Ravens have worked to attack Harrison's aggression with delay runs in his area.

If Baltimore wants success in time of possession and field position, keeping Harrison as neutralized as possible is critical. Some say Gaither was able to keep Harrison at bay in their last meeting by getting a firm grasp on his jersey. However he does it, he shut him out in Week 15, and the Steelers haven't lost this season when Harrison has had 1.5 sacks or more (5-0).

QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ravens LBs

Roethlisberger looked deep to Nate Washington a few times in the Steelers Week 15 victory at Baltimore. They were unable to connect, but judging by how strong his deep passes looked in the Divisional round against San Diego, and Baltimore's depleted secondary, Roethlisberger will look for the deep pass early. He was effective against San Diego, but he barely missed on a few deep plays that would have sent his numbers through the roof. If he can get that timing and rhythm down, Baltimore will have a problem down the field.

Roethlisberger will try to set up the big gainer with an array of three step drop-and-release passes. He sprayed the flats and short middle with passes in their first meeting, lodging the second-highest pass attempt total against Baltimore in his career (40). The linebackers of the Ravens bring a tremendous amount of pressure, but will have to be equally strong in coverage in this game. Another challenge they face is if Roethlisberger sits in the pocket too long, he'll make a play with his legs – he had three carries for 25 yards against Baltimore in Week 15 – one went for a first down, and the other two set up short-yardage situations. The linebackers in all the Ravens packages will have to mirror Roethlisberger and not let him out of the pocket.

WR Santonio Holmes vs. CB Fabien Washington

Holmes has 50 percent of the offensive touchdowns scored in the games between these teams this year (2-of-4). He broke loose for a key score in Week 3, and added the game-winner against the Ravens in Week 15 – the score that clinched the division for Pittsburgh. Add in a punt return for a touchdown against San Diego in the Divisional, Holmes has been a key component of the Steelers late season success.

Don't think offensive coordinator Bruce Arians isn't eyeing the Ravens banged up secondary. Washington is about as fast as any player in the NFL, and matches up well with Holmes outside the numbers, but with CB Samari Rolle listed as doubtful, Washington is going to have to handle Holmes all over the field.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Ravens
x Quarterback  
x Running backs  
  Offensive line x
x Wide receivers  
x Tight ends  
x Defensive line  
x Linebackers  
x Defensive backs  
  Special teams x

Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.

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