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Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Couch Groove AFC Playoff Preview

Troy Polamalu forced Joe Flacco to fumble in their last meetingOVERVIEW
It didn’t matter that the Kansas City Chiefs were 7-1 at home on the season, nor the fact that Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones comprised the most scorching running attack of the 2010 season. The Baltimore Ravens went into the locker room at halftime with a narrow 3 point lead, but exploded for 20 points in the second half. The offensive output, combined with three interceptions, was enough to end the Chiefs’ first playoff run in four years, by a score of 30-7. With weekend headlines surrounding his missing, presumably dead brother, Brian, Ed Reed played with his team in their dominant victory.

Next on tap for the playoff road warriors is a rubber match with their division nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Baltimore Ravens took game one earlier in the season, but Pittsburgh won match two in December with the division lead at stake. But this time, both teams’ journeys are on the line.

TEN QUESTIONS

1. How heavy is Ed Reed’s heart?
Reed managed to rack up four solo tackles in what may have been the hardest game he’s ever played. Credit is due to the man, as the majority of people (myself included) probably couldn’t summon the strength to do something so taxing if my brother was missing, with his life in the lurch. If Pittsburgh fans are hoping for a Reed meltdown in the forthcoming game, they’d better think again. Just suiting up and getting on that field Sunday had to be difficult, but the fact remains that he did it. It’ll become easier the second time and the third time and so forth. The Ravens gave the game ball to Reed, which is a gesture that indicates 100% support of the locker room will be thrown behind their All-Pro safety. A team like the Ravens has thrived on high emotion and forged brotherhood, and they won’t let Reed fall.

2. How did Baltimore take over the second half on Kansas City?
After halftime, Kansas City slowed down their running attempts considerably, and made the common mistake of trying to force the ball downfield with throw after throw. Despite only being down three points at the start of the third quarter, the potent Jamaal Charles/Thomas Jones running attack (combined for the most years of any duo in the NFL this season) ended up with 14 total carries for 97 yards. Charles had a first quarter rushing touchdown of 41 yards, which was nearly half of the rushing output. Matt Cassel threw all three of his picks in the second half, shifting time of possession well into Baltimore’s favor (rendering the Chiefs unable to wear down the Baltimore Ravens suspect run defense), and Baltimore went into cruise control, wearing down KC’s run defense instead. The Chiefs may have been intimidated into forcing passes, but Pittsburgh seems more apt to take their sweet old time.

3. How costly was Baltimore Ravens Sunday night loss to Pittsburgh in December?
Both teams were 8-3 going into the December 5 game in Baltimore, and Baltimore held the tiebreaker with the road win earlier in the season. A win at home against the Steelers would have put Pittsburgh at, essentially, a two game disadvantage with four games to go. Baltimore had Pittsburgh buried 10-3 going into the fourth quarter, and Pittsburgh struggled to get the ball down field all night. In the fourth, however, after Shaun Suisham made it 10-6 with a field goal, Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh down the field late, hitting Isaac Redman with a strike, who broke several tackles to take a 13-10 lead. Pittsburgh got a chance for the victory drive when the always-alert Troy Polamalu forced Joe Flacco to fumble, allowing Lamaar Woodley to recover and take the ball to the Ravens’ 9 yard line. Baltimore may play better on the road, but Pittsburgh enjoyed a week off.

4. Did Jamaal Charles set a template for how to run on Baltimore?
It’s hard to run through the middle of Baltimore’s defensive line, especially with the deceptively quick Haloti Ngata coming off the edge. Charles was quick enough to bounce to the outside, especially on his 41 yard touchdown scamper, but not everyone is blessed with Charles’ speed. Charles ran a 4.34 in the 40 at his combine, whereas Pittsburgh’s most capable running back, Rashard Mendenhall, is a shade slower, having run a 4.54. Charles is one of the two or three fastest running backs in the NFL, so those precious split seconds that he can get the drop on a defense, not everyone can create. This is where Pittsburgh’s tight ends (Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth), as well as dual tight end/fullback David Johnson have to be able to create moving walls for Mendenhall to move behind. You don’t want to end up one-dimensional against Baltimore, and be forced to throw.

5. What is Pittsburgh’s best match-up on Baltimore’s defense?
The Steelers were 11th in rushing and 14th in passing (with a revolving door at quarterback during Ben Roethlisberger’s four game suspension), so there’s no real area in which they’re consistently dominant. If anything, Pittsburgh’s been so dominant with their defense that an explosive offensive output isn’t required always. But since you can’t always rely on your defense to be your offense, Pittsburgh’s best bet is to vary the attack. Kansas City made the mistake of having Matt Cassel make hesitant throws, and any hesitant quarterback is going to be easily devoured by the Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger is used to throwing when he’s uncomfortable (his offensive line can be described as “well-intentioned, but inept”), but patterns are his worst enemy against the Ravens. A varied attack of run-pass-run in various sequences, along with option/draw plays, would keep any defense guessing, even Baltimore’s. The key is not taking any unnecessary risks.

6. What is Baltimore’s best match-up on Pittsburgh’s defense?
While I’m an advocate of offenses being as diverse as possible, it’s best that Baltimore jettison the running game. The Steelers are giving up an insanely low 62.8 rushing yards a game, which is 31 yards less than Baltimore gives up on average. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee have seen their averages dip considerably from last year (5.3 and 5.0 to 4.0 and 3.8 yards respectively), and unless the Ravens utilize draw plays to change things up, there’s little chance they’re going to put a dent in Dick LeBeau’s defense. Instead, if Joe Flacco can find comfort in the pocket, you can mix things up with a three receiver/one running back/one tight end set consistently, with changes in personnel to suit different play schemes. Like the prior example, the way to handle a tough defense is variety, and the more Pittsburgh has to guess, the less turnovers you cough up.

7. Will Baltimore even try to run the ball?
Cam Cameron will be engaged in the biggest chess match of his career with Dick LeBeau on Saturday. In week 4, Baltimore managed just 70 yards on 27 carries (less than 2.6 yards a carry). Fast forward a month, and the output diminished to 43 yards on 20 carries (barely over 2 yards a run). Obviously, if Baltimore passes on every down, it narrows down the weapons that Pittsburgh has to anticipate. The Ravens, if they’re going to make the most out of this game, need to get creative. Linebackers like James Harrison and Lamaar Woodley are among the best run stoppers in the game, so passing with double tight end sets and running on wide receiver streaks increases your chances of catching the Steelers off guard. Joe Flacco also has the ability to scramble decently enough, so if he’s willing to take a shot, he’ll help the Ravens’ drives.

8. Troy Polamalu: frequent blitzes or zone patrol?
7 interceptions, a pick six, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and 11 deflected passes. Troy Polamalu continues to be a nightmare in Dick LeBeau’s secondary, and Flacco knows that nightmare all too well. As I mentioned, it was Polamalu who forced that fumble on December 5 that led to Pittsburgh stealing the game from under Baltimore’s nose. Much like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu commands constant attention from the quarterback, lurking like an albatross either way downfield, or charging up for a safety blitz. Given that Flacco’s likely going to be passing for much of the game, I think Polamalu will only blitz if absolutely necessary. You’re going to want Polamalu in centerfield, making Flacco take an extra second to figure out where he is before unleashing his throw. That extra second could be all that’s needed for Joe Flacco to get wrapped up by the incoming line.

9. Does Ben Roethlisberger throw Ed Reed’s way?
Many of Reed’s turnovers are off deflections or fumbles due to his crazy alertness that makes him understand the situation immediately, and take the turnover before anyone else realizes what’s happened. So the problem with Reed isn’t so much throwing his way, but it’s doing anything that the entire defense can get a hand on, resulting in Reed’s internal sonar belining him toward the ball. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are experienced enough tight-ends to be able to handle Reed well enough. Reed’s actually easier to block out of a play than Polamalu, yet Reed has better alertness than his Pittsburgh Steelers counterpart, and that’s their difference. For as many interceptions as Reed gets, his true talent is fumble recoveries. No one arrives on the scene quicker. I think Ben will take a chance and throw in Reed’s direction, if only because he’s getting rid of the ball on blitz attempts.

10. Does being on the road favor Baltimore?
Jon Harbaugh has yet to coach the Ravens at home in the playoffs, but they’re a mighty impressive 4-2. In 2008, the Ravens spiked Chad Pennington and the Dolphins, and then upset the top seeded Titans before losing in bitter defeat to Pittsburgh in the AFC Title game. Last season, the Ravens had their way with a Wes Welker-less Patriots in Foxborough, before being stomped by eventual AFC Champion Indianapolis. Now with a win over the Chiefs, who as mentioned were 7-1 at Arrowhead this season, the Ravens trek back to Pittsburgh to continue a hateful rivalry. The Ravens are experts at killing crowds with timely turnovers. The fans at Arrowhead, among the NFL’s most loyal, were leaving in droves in the fourth quarter, though the Heinz Field fans are going to be harder to deter. Baltimore beat the Steelers once at Heinz Field this year: can lightning strike twice?

ANALYSIS
After some offensive shootouts and frenetic plays in Wild Card Weekend, the Divisional round begins with a potentially low-scoring slugfest. The scores for the teams’ two meetings this season were 17-14 and 13-10, with each team averaging less than two full touchdowns per game. Both defenses are well versed in the art of turnovers that suck the life out of their opposition, and both offenses can capitalize on those turnovers. It’s hard picking a winner when the game will likely come down to a freak play or two. Each defense has enough game changers to make that difference. If I’m forced to pick one team, I’ll take Pittsburgh in a squeaker. Pittsburgh has the more diverse offense and a better running game, which is the key to clock management. The Ravens don’t wear down easily, but in a stand-up brawl, the Steelers have more energy to land the knockout blow.

SCORE: Steelers 16, Ravens 13

Justin Henry is the owner and (currently) sole writer of Couch Groove Football. He can be found on Facebook.com and Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/cynicjrh

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Eric G.

Eric is the owner and editor-in-chief of the Camel Clutch Blog. Eric has worked in the pro wrestling industry since 1995 as a ring announcer in ECW and a commentator/host on television, PPV, and home video. Eric also hosted Pro Wrestling Radio on terrestrial radio from 1998-2009. Check out some of Eric's work on his IMDB bio and Wikipedia. Eric has an MBA from Temple University's Fox School of Business.

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