By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers travel to M&T Bank Stadium for a 4:15 p.m. game on Sunday vs. the Baltimore Ravens:
STEELERS SS TROY POLAMALU VS. RAVENS FS ED REED: It's not that these guys actually line up on the field and oppose each other, but in big games between quality teams it's often the stars who make the difference. Polamalu and Reed are two of this game's biggest stars. Polamalu leads the NFL in interceptions with seven, and he has one in each of the past four games, which coincides perfectly with the Steelers' current winning streak. Reed has five interceptions, but he has returned two of those for touchdowns – one for 107 yards against the Eagles – and he also has returned a fumble for a score this season. Make no mistake, there are plenty of offensive players in the league with fewer than the 10 touchdowns Reed has scored so far in his NFL career. "It doesn't surprise me that when you turn your television on, you see him running with the football; you get used to seeing him doing that," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Reed. "This guy is a ball-hawk; he is a good player who is very instinctual. It is not that he is a gambler or a high-risk taker, he is just simply one of the best in the world at what he does." Polamalu doesn't score like Reed, but he is a weapon in every aspect of the Steelers' defensive plan. He can destroy an offense as well, just in a different fashion. "He watches film and studies so he thinks that he has a bead on what teams are doing," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. "He is going to read your eyes and he is going to attack wherever you are looking. You have to be aware of that, and believe me, we will be. He is a great player but it is going to be more about what we do than what he does."
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. RAVENS DEFENSIVE FRONT: It's maybe a subtle thing, but it's also something else the Ravens defense does well. Their reputation is of a defense that attacks the quarterback, but one of the ways their pass rush creates turnovers is by batting balls at the line of scrimmage. NT Haloti Ngata has one sack and four batted balls; DT Justin Bannan has three. Sometimes the play that's called assigns the offensive linemen the job of getting the opponents' hands down, but there are times when the "rusher" will look to bat the ball instead of advance to the quarterback. Getting the football through the picket fence will be important because tipped balls are brutal against a defense like the Ravens'.
STEELERS WR HINES WARD VS. RAVENS LILB RAY LEWIS: Again, the familiarity of the annual home-and-home series breeds contempt, but there's also not a whole lot each team doesn't know about the other's personnel. "They've got great players, great coaches, continuity. Those are the ties that bind all great units and all great teams," said Tomlin about the Ravens defense. "They have a signature guy in Ray Lewis who assumes the responsibility of leading the troops. They understand the standard." Just as Lewis sets the tone for the Ravens defense, Ward handles that for the Steelers offense. Number of rushing attempts aside, the Steelers have to be a physical offense if they hope to be in a position to win this game.
STEELERS ROLB JAMES HARRISON VS. RAVENS LT JARED GAITHER: This will be yet another stage Harrison will share with yet another group of the league's elite players, and so far he has shown himself to deserve to be counted as a peer. Harrison is in the argument for every significant postseason award handed out by the NFL, and his history has been that he excels against the Ravens. This will be Harrison's fourth start against Baltimore, and in the two in Pittsburgh he had a combined six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. In last year's game in Baltimore – Harrison's only start there – the Steelers already had clinched the division title and were resting guys for the playoffs. Historically, when these Steelers-Ravens games come up on the schedule, people invariably have recited the names of the defensive players who have impacted the outcomes of the games. That list has to include James Harrison.