Pressing Questions  

C-Spire  

Ravens win could come down to Flacco performing in clutch

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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There are no secrets when the Ravens and Steelers get together. Everyone expects a low-scoring, defensive battle likely to come down to the final possession.

The two division foes, who meet on Saturday in a divisional playoff game, split the season series -- with each winning on the other's home field -- and each have scored 27 total points against the other. Don't expect a 100-yard rusher, despite the fact that both teams will average 20-plus carries in hopes of keeping the offense balanced. The longest run from scrimmage in the two previous matchups: 14 yards, and that was on a quarterback scramble by Joe Flacco.

Both defenses operate from the 3-4, with the Steelers creating more pressure on quarterbacks than the Ravens, but injuries to Pittsburgh's offensive line could neutralize the significant difference in sacks.

The winner of this game will move on to the AFC Championship Game, but you've got to wonder what will be left of these teams after playing the most physical game of the divisional round.

Here are four pressing questions, as the Ravens and Steelers prepare to go at it for a third time:

1. Which QB has advantage?

Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended at the time, did not play in the 17-14 loss to the Ravens back in Week 4, but started in the 13-10 win in Baltimore last month. Flacco, who threw a touchdown in both games, passed an average of 37.5 times in the two meetings. We know there's going to be a lot of passing, so let's examine the quarterbacks.

Roethlisberger is 8-3 all time, including the playoffs, against the Ravens, but he's even better at Heinz Field where he's 6-1 against Baltimore with 13 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. He's been sacked 21 times in those seven games, but they never seem to bother him. Big Ben has been really good on third downs against the Ravens, especially in the last six games in which he has completed 65 percent of his third-down attempts at over 10 yards an attempt with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. That's a hard act to follow for Flacco, but he looked really good last week in Kansas City.

The Steelers' defense is ranked No. 2 in the NFL and is significantly better than Kansas City's. Flacco is 2-5 all time against Pittsburgh and just 1-3 at Heinz Field. Last week, Flacco showed a willingness to run with the ball, and his seven carries for 26 yards might not seem like a big deal, but it is a critical component to moving the chains and not letting Pittsburgh play certain coverages. The last time they met on this field, the mighty Steelers pass rush only sacked Flacco once in 33 pass plays and only hit him twice. Anquan Boldin caught 12 passes for 186 yards in the previous two Steelers games, and he will be a favorite target once again. Todd Heap had a career game last week and needs another this week.

2. Whose pass rush will apply more pressure?

Pittsburgh -- or "Blitzburgh," if you will -- had 48 sacks in the regular season as compared to 27 for the Ravens. However, Baltimore did get to Matt Cassel three times last week facing a better offensive line than the one it'll face Saturday.

Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has had success in the past getting to Pittsburgh's quarterback, posting 12.5 sacks in his 16 games. Steelers LB James Harrison has played the Ravens an equal number of games, but only has six sacks. Lamar Woodley is a key to the Steelers' pressure against Baltimore, with 7.5 sacks in nine games.

Roethlisberger gets sacked one in 10 attempts against the Ravens, and the same is true for Flacco against the Steelers. It really comes down to which team can apply the most pressure in the fourth quarter, when the game is on the line. Flacco has only thrown one touchdown in the fourth quarter of seven games against the Steelers and has been sacked one in seven attempts.

3. Who are X-factors?

The X-factor for the Steelers used to be Santonio Holmes when it came to playing the Ravens, but he's gone now. Holmes had eight touchdowns in nine games against Baltimore, and when you consider Hines Ward has not scored in the last 13 games against the Ravens, and that Heath Miller hasn't hit pay dirt in the last eight games, the X-factor has to be Mike Wallace.

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Wallace is averaging 21 yards a catch and has 10 touchdowns this year, but he has never scored against the Ravens, who completely eliminated Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe last week. Wallace has a big challenge, and look for his big plays to come off Roethlisberger scrambling.

For the Ravens, their X-factor is Ed Reed. He roams the middle of the field and has seen those Roethlisberger scrambles turn into long completions. Reed hasn't picked off Roethlisberger in the last six games they have met and only has three picks in the 15 games he has faced the Steelers. By the way, his counterpart, Troy Polamalu, only has one interception against the Ravens in 14 games.

4. Can either team's running game protect a lead?

Rashard Mendenhall will get his carries against Baltimore. He had 44 rushes for 124 yards in the first two games for a 2.75 yards a carry average, but he did score twice and a 60-yard, one-touchdown day could be enough to put the Steelers over the top.

As for the Ravens, Ray Rice and Willis McGahee will get close to 20 carries between them, but don't expect them to average over 3 yards. Rice has never scored against the Steelers in the 80 touches he has had in six games. I don't think either team can sit on a lead and try to kill the clock running the ball. If they do, they risk punting after a quick three-and-out.

There is a lot of momentum for the Ravens coming off that dominating win over the Chiefs, and they do average 22 points a game on the road while only giving up 16. But the Steelers average 26 points a game at home and only give up 12. I'll take Pittsburgh 13-10.

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