PITTSBURGH -- Here are five questions and answers for the AFC Championship Game:
1. Can the Ravens have success on the ground against the Steelers' defense?
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Yes. The Ravens' persistence in running the ball gives them the opportunity to have success on the ground against any opponent, including the Steelers' second-ranked run defense. They trust their defense to keep the score close, and will continually pound the ball on the ground to soften the opposing defense for either breakaway runs or big gains on the occasions they allow rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to throw. Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee combined for 105 yards when the teams met on Sept. 29 (a game decided in overtime) and again when they met on Dec. 14. McClain generated the bulk of the yards, ranking as the top rusher in both games with 63 and 87 yards. Of course, the Steelers won both games -- the first in overtime and the second to clinch the AFC North title. But the Ravens, oweners of the league's fourth-best rushing attack, have to view their ability to move the ball on the ground as a plus because it helps take some of the teeth out of the Steelers' ferocious pass rush.
2. Can the Steelers rattle young Joe Flacco?
No. If Flacco has proven one thing through 16 regular-season starts and two playoff games, it is that he does not lose his poise. Ever. He does not show any sense of being overwhelmed by the challenge of guiding an NFL team in the playoffs. Nor does he seem to have any problem handling most of what opposing defenses try to do to throw him off his game. Flacco was not at all bothered by the fact the Steelers' sacked him five times during his first encounter with Pittsburgh's top-ranked defnese in September. He did not throw an interception in that game, and had a touchdown while keeping the Ravens within three points. Flacco also wasn't fazed when the teams met the second time, even though he was sacked twice and did throw two interceptions (the second was a desperation heave after the Steelers scored what proved to be the winning touchdown in the final minute). Steelers defenders acknowledge that he isn't a rookie anymore, and have seen him develop significantly since early in the season.
3. Will the Steelers be able to have success on the ground?
Yes. The Titans certainly had no problem running the ball against the Ravens' third-ranked run defense in their divisional-round game. Granted, the Steelers don't have nearly as good an offensive line as Tennessee's. However, they have shown improvement -- enough that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians trusted the group to take charge of the divisional-round game against the Chargers. The result was that Willie Parker rushed 27 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Expect the Steelers to try and pound the ball against the Ravens, although recent history suggests it will be difficult. Parker was hurt for the first game against Baltimore during the regular season. His replacement, rookie Rashard Mendenhall, was limited to a mere 30 yards. Parker was back for the second game against the Ravens and was held to only 47 yards. But the Steelers will look at the Titans' success and attempt to do the same thing. Of course, if they don't have success early, they won't hesitate to go to the air.
4. Will Ben Roethlisberger be able to stand up to Baltimore's wide variety of blitzing?
Yes. He has done so twice before. The Ravens sacked him three times, all on blitzes, during the teams' first meeting in the regular season, but he threw a touchdown along with an interception. During the second meeting, they again sacked him three times, again all on blitzes. And, again, Roethlisberger threw for a score. Even more impressive, though, was that he drove the Steelers the length of the field to connect with Santonio Holmes for the winning touchdown. In the divisional-round victory over San Diego, Roethlisberger didn't seem to have any lingering problems from the concussion he suffered in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. Of course, he didn't face a whole lot of pressure from the Chargers, who often sent only four rushers after him. But Big Ben and his offensive linemen are used to the many variations Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan likes to use in his scheme.
5. Who will win the battle of young coaches?
Mike Tomlin. But it's a pretty close margin. John Harbaugh has done an exceptional job of leading the Ravens this far. He has kept his players focused and done a good job of keeping Flacco on track. Harbaugh's greatest asset is trusting his talented assistants, Ryan and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Like his predecessor, Brian Billick, Harbaugh understands that defense is the engine that drives the Ravens and he leans on it heavily, as reflected by the run-oriented offense. Unlike Billick, however, he is more demanding and makes the players more accountable. Tomlin also relies on his assistants to handle their respective roles, especially highly talented defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. When Tomlin took over in 2007, he could have imposed a lot of his defensive philosophy, which doesn't precisely follow that of LeBeau, on the team. But he didn't, recognizing that the players were comfortable with LeBeau's scheme and that their abilities were well suited to it. Tomlin brings a high level of energy and enthusiasm that is contagious with his players. They trust him and want to win for him.