NT Casey Hampton vs. C Matt Birk and LG Jah Reid
Hampton is still playing his way into shape, and isn’t as dominant as he once was. He will play a huge role in this game, however, considering his match-up. The key to zone stretch running is sealing off Hampton. Baltimore will attack in zone on the ground in many of their runs, and Hampton will need to get to the outside shoulder of Birk and be prepared for backside cut blocking from both Reid and LG Marshal Yanda.
Birk has seen better days. He looked weak against Oakland, and the Ravens failed to get any significant runs all game. Some of that was due to the poor play of LG Bobbie Williams, who was benched for Reid in the first half. Reid was better, but not enough to suggest Baltimore has an advantage over Pittsburgh on the ground. If Hampton can hold his own, and the Steelers’ linebackers can remain disciplined in their pursuit angles (something they didn’t do against Kansas City), they can slow down Baltimore’s running game, making them a one-dimensional offense.
TE Heath Miller vs. ILB Dannell Ellerbe
Miller has faced double-teams by mandate over the last three games. He’s still grabbing four catches for 47 yards over that time, but has one touchdown in that time – and none over the last two games. Expect the Steelers to attack the Ravens’ depleted secondary with three wide receivers, forcing Baltimore to bring Ellerbe – Ray Lewis’ replacement – over in a short zone to cover Miller or TE David Paulson.
Ellerbe hasn’t been strong in coverage this season, and the Ravens have been gashed by tight ends this season. With Byron Leftwich starting over Ben Roethlisberger, his slow release (but powerful arm) will make out routes a little more risky, but his throws down the seam in the 10-15 yard range could be very effective.
RT Mike Adams vs. LE DeAngelo Tyson
Two newbies to this rivalry, both are rookies who have recently entered into more prominent roles on their respective teams. Adams had a difficult time with Chiefs OLB Justin Houston in Week 10, and fortunately for him, he won’t see that kind of pass rush coming from either Tyson or LOLB Paul Kruger. But Tyson is an athletic, high-motor kind of player, and his ability to gain leverage on Oakland RT Willie Smith helped Kruger have perhaps his best game of the season (two sacks and an interception).
There’s something to be said about consistency, and Adams can benefit by having faced a 3-4 defense the previous week. The Steelers can run effectively off Adams’ side, but they will need to keep their offense balanced in order to keep the Ravens from stacking the box. Expect Baltimore to bring loads of pressure off the edge on passing downs, and Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the pocket clean for heavy-footed Leftwich will be a key in this game.
Steelers CB Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis vs. WRs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin
Since a nightmare game against Tennessee in Week 6, both Taylor and Lewis have stepped up their play. Much of this improvement can be attributed to the adjustment of the Steelers’ deep secondary playing more cover 2, but Taylor and Lewis have both played excellent football in their 1-on-1 match-ups. The Steelers did a great job containing the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, and Smith and Boldin bring with them that same level of ability.
The Ravens aren’t afraid of releasing receivers vertically outside the numbers while isolating safeties on their tight ends. This was the main reason why they had so much success against Oakland. The Steelers safeties are better than those of the Raiders in coverage, but they will still need to have success defending the speedy Smith and the powerful Boldin outside the numbers.