By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens on Sunday Night Football on NBC:
STEELERS KICKOFF COVERAGE VS. RAVENS KOR LARDARIUS WEBB: Who's kidding whom? Every week from now until the end of the season, this is going to be a matchup to watch, and for Steelers fans, to fear. If the Steelers lose the coin toss, as they did in Kansas City, this quickly could become a situation that alters the course of the entire game, as it did in Kansas City. Two weeks ago, Coach Mike Tomlin turned to the practice squad for reinforcements on kickoff coverage, but when Donovan Woods was part of a unit that allowed Jamaal Charles to go 97 yards in Arrowhead Stadium, Tomlin turned his search to the street where he found veterans Rocky Boiman and Corey Ivy. Both figure to be in uniform and running down under kickoffs at M&T Bank Stadium. "Just an overall attitude that a young man has to have to run down and get blocked by you-don't-know-who," said Ivy, 32, about covering kicks. "Probably just a want-to and being afraid to fail -- you know, you just never want to let down your teammates, let down your organization, your fans, your friends and family." So far this season, return guys have had to wait to face the Steelers before bringing one back for a touchdown, but Webb already has taken care of that, with a 95-yard return for a touchdown to open the second half of a game against the Denver Broncos.
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. "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 51 catches, 21 of which have been good for first downs, with 17 receptions coming on third downs. Flacco was sacked 32 times in 428 attempts last season, and this season those numbers are 18 sacks in 335 attempts through 10 games. Clearly, Flacco is getting better at avoiding sacks, and part of the reason is his reliance on Rice, and Rice's ability to come through.
STEELERS CB DESHEA TOWNSEND VS. RAVENS WR KELLEY WASHINGTON: If history is any gauge, this game will be closely-contested, which means the outcome could swing on a handful of third-down situations. Since neither team figures to make a living running the football, converting third downs likely will fall on the efficiency of the passing attack. On third downs, Flacco is completing 63.6 percent, with five touchdowns and four interceptions for a passer rating of 82.8. Washington has 13 catches for 164 yards on third downs, and if he isn't necessarily the primary receiver in all of those kinds of situations his 26 total receptions on the season confirm his role as a contributor.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. RAVENS SLB JARRET JOHNSON: Bart Scott is gone, and Terrell Suggs is nursing an injury sustained as the result of a low block by Browns quarterback Brady Quinn a couple of weeks ago. Those were a couple of the guys the Ravens had used to create confusion/pressure on opposing passers, but so far this season Jarret Johnson has been answering the call to fill that role. "Jarret Johnson is playing in my opinion better than he's ever played," said Tomlin. "He's playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level. He's an impact player." There is agreement that Johnson is making an impact, and one of the reasons why is his versatility. In a lot of ways, Johnson is comparable to the Steelers linebackers in that he can play the run, rush the passer or drop into coverage, and be a viable option in all three phases. His six sacks lead the Ravens, and he's also second on the team in tackles with 51 and has added a couple of passes defensed. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a concussion, but so far during the week he has passed all of the medical tests and so he's expected to start on Sunday night. Coming off a concussion or not, recognition is always a key to being successful against the Ravens defense, and a good bit of the recognition this time will come from know where Johnson is.
STEELERS NT CASEY HAMPTON VS. RAVENS C MATT BIRK: In the three 2008 games, the Ravens rushed for 103, 112 and 73 yards, respectively, well below their average of 148 yards per game. This season, the Ravens are averaging 115.5 yards rushing per game, and even with the loss of Aaron Smith the Steelers are allowing only 69.2 yards rushing per game. Making a team one-dimensional on offense is a weekly goal for the Steelers. Last year's center, Jason Brown, left via free agency, and the Ravens responded by signing Matt Birk from the Vikings, where he was a starter during Tomlin's season there as defensive coordinator. "Savvy veteran, Pro Bowl-caliber player, Harvard man, extremely smart," said Tomlin of Birk. "He's going to be a tough guy to trick in terms of making declarations and attacking protections. There's a reason why they went out and acquired Matt Birk. He's going to be tough to fool. You can't go in assuming that you're going to fool these guys, you've got to be prepared to beat them physically. This guy is that good at getting fronts and potential blitzes and so forth declared." Knowing what Casey Hampton will do and defeating him physically are two different things.
By BOB LABRIOLA