Key Match-ups: Steelers-Ravens

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in tonight's game between the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.

QB Dennis Dixon vs. QB Joe Flacco

In a game where quarterbacks traditionally don't do well, this one seems a particularly daunting place for Dixon to make his first career start. Much has been said about his athletic ability, and a few open runs during the last two preseasons provides some validity to it, but when the rubber meets the road, to replace Ben Roethlisberger's 68.9 percent completion rate, Dixon's going to have to stretch Baltimore horizontally. Expect him to utilize his running backs in the flats and TE Heath Miller between 4-6 yards from the line of scrimmage. He'll have to protect the ball, something the Steelers entire offense has had difficulty with during a two-game losing streak.

Baltimore QB Joe Flacco's star was reduced to dust in three games against Pittsburgh last season (five interceptions, 10 sacks). So far in 2009, he's had outstanding games and he's had poor games. The Ravens have done a better job protecting him recently, having not allowed a sack for the first time this season last week against Indianapolis. The problem for him, though, seems to be a lack of desire to look past WR Derrick Mason and RB Ray Rice. Between those two, Flacco has thrown 33 of his past 52 passes their way. He will have to utilize more than two weapons if he wants to be able to control possession and the clock.

RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. LB Ray Lewis

It'll be tough for Mendenhall to put aside the mental warfare Lewis – who broke Mendenhall's collarbone last season – is sure to lay on him, but if the Steelers ever needed the young running back, it's Sunday night. Pittsburgh is without its quarterback, and going up against a weaker Ravens defense than they've previously seen, they are going to have to find a way to run in Baltimore.

Lewis has done an excellent job this season keeping a youngish and often-injured defense together. Despite Cincinnati's Cedric Benson becoming the first player in nearly 10 years to rush for two 100-yard games against them in a row, Lewis has led the Ravens from a deep statistical hole to the league's 5th-ranked run defense. Certainly, he remembers what he did to Mendenhall last season, but Mendenhall has run for a lot of yards since then. In order to keep the Ravens' secondary in attack mode, Lewis will have to lock Mendenhall down.

OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Ts Jared Gaither and Michael Oher

It has the makings of one of the best edge match-ups of the season. Harrison and Woodley have been all over quarterbacks all season, and have combined for five sacks in the Steelers' past two games. Some of Harrison's best performances have come against Baltimore, in terms of run and pass defense as well as rushing the quarterback. Woodley's numbers aren't as gaudy as Harrison's, but Woodley has 18 QB pressures to Harrison's 26.

Oher came into the league as advertised, and has been a big part of Baltimore's ramped up pass protection. He'll mainly go up against Woodley in a battle of brawn. He had a similar match-up last week with Indianapolis's Robert Mathis, and didn't allow a sack. Gaither has locked down Harrison before, but it takes perfect footwork and overall technique for someone as large as Gaither (6-foot-9, 340 pounds) to stay inside of the compact and explosive Harrison.

WRs Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton vs. CBs William Gay and Ike Taylor

While Mason and Taylor have danced this dance before, the key is Gay vs. Clayton. The Ravens have gotten next-to-nothing in terms of production from their receivers not named Mason, and with RB Ray Rice's 1,248 all-purpose yards accounting for 35 percent of all of Baltimore's offense, Flacco will have to find another option. Look for Mason and Clayton to work off each other, flooding zone and going down the sideline. Clayton is a big play threat, and it won't be a surprise to see the Ravens heave it deep early in the game.

Gay and Taylor again are featured due to the fact teams have had high levels of success against them week in and week out. The shoddy play recently of FS Ryan Clark and the lack of SS Troy Polamalu hasn't helped, but Taylor has a few dropped interceptions this year. This isn't the game he'll be able to get away with that. Discipline is critical for both of them; Taylor in wrapping up the crafty Mason and Gay in preventing the big play.

Open field tackling will likely be critical for both of them as well, as Baltimore won't be afraid to get Rice out in the flats if they are able to move Pittsburgh's corners toward the middle of the field.

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

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