By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. RAVENS SECONDARY: Baltimore's defense comes into Sunday's game ranked No. 24 in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt, and it moved up into the sixth spot in interceptions, but only after a recent flurry that had them record eight in the previous three games. The Ravens have had issues at cornerback all season, with the combination of departed veterans and injuries creating a revolving door that started with Chris McAlister not being retained and then Samari Rolle on PUP and then Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb on IR. Add to that the absence of Ed Reed for the previous three games with a hip injury, and the Ravens' back line has been an area targeted by opposing teams. Philip Rivers passed for 426 yards; Brett Favre went for 278 and three touchdowns; Peyton Manning for 299; and Aaron Rodgers for 263 and three touchdowns. But in the three games previous to the one vs. the Steelers, the Ravens defense has feasted on Jay Cutler (four interceptions), Daunte Culpepper (two) and Rodgers (two) to raise their season total to 20. With Roethlisberger coming off a franchise-record performance against a solid Packers defense, there would seem to be the potential for this game to develop into a shoot-out. But it always seems that when shoot-outs are predicted, the defenses rise to the occasion.
STEELERS CBs DESHEA TOWNSEND AND IKE TAYLOR VS. RAVENS WRs DERRICK MASON AND MARK CLAYTON: Like the Ravens', the Steelers' pass defense has not been up to the team's typical standards this season, and Coach Mike Tomlin has juggled some personnel groupings before making a change to the starting lineup for this week's game. William Gay will be replaced as one starting cornerback by Deshea Townsend. "That was the decision Coach gave me. That's the game plan, I guess," Gay said after yesterday's practice. "You got to always go with the head coach. He makes the best decisions to suit the situation. I just got to go in and do my best. The season isn't over yet. And you're always one play away. You definitely want to stay ready." The Steelers have allowed 308 and 383 yards passing in their previous two home games – vs. Oakland and Green Bay – and three touchdown passes in each. In the first meeting with the Ravens, Mark Clayton caught seven passes for 129 yards, an 18.4 average for a receiver who has averaged 13.2 on his other 26 catches. The Steelers have not recorded an interception since Nov. 9 in Denver, and their eight on the season is tied for second-to-last in the league with Oakland. Cleveland has six interceptions on the season.
STEELERS ILBs JAMES FARRIOR AND LAWRENCE TIMMONS VS. RAVENS RB RAY RICE: Part of the Steelers plan vs. every opponent they face is to pressure the quarterback, and part of the Ravens plan in every game this year to defeat that strategy is to dump the ball off to Ray Rice. "He's doing a lot of things well for them, and he's a security blanket for Joe Flacco in the passing game," said Tomlin about Rice before the teams met in Baltimore on Nov. 29. "This guy has caught a bunch of check-downs and they do a nice job of understanding where this guy is in the passing game." Rice enters the game as the Ravens' leading receiver with 73 catches, 26 of which have been good for first downs, with 22 receptions coming on third downs. In the first meeting between these teams this season, Rice converted a fourth-and-5 with a 44-yard catch-and-run, and earlier converted a third-and-12 with an 18-yard catch. Whatever the Steelers were doing to try to control Rice didn't work very well, but with Troy Polamalu still sidelined there might not be much they can change.
STEELERS RB RASHARD MENDENHALL VS. RAVENS ILBs TAVARES GOODEN AND RAY LEWIS: Gooden was injured and didn't play last weekend against the Bears, and he was replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Dannell Ellerbe, but no matter who is lined up next to Ray Lewis, the Ravens will be looking to do a better job against Mendenhall and the Steelers running attack. In that Nov. 29 game in Baltimore, the Steelers rushed for 153 yards and averaged 4.0 per attempt, and they were able to do it even though the Ravens knew the Steelers would be trying to protect inexperienced quarterback Dennis Dixon. Mendenhall finished with 95 yards on 24 carries that night, and in many ways it was one of his best performances as a pro. Since the Steelers proved to the Ravens they could run the football in the last game, they should force the Ravens to prove they can stop the run in this game.
By BOB LABRIOLA