Just like that, Ravens week is upon us once again. The Steelers turned in an impressive performance against a longtime nemesis last week, but will have little time to celebrate as arch rival Baltimore is coming to town on Sunday night. Players and coaches are still thinking about the shocking turn of events in week one, when Baltimore demolished Pittsburgh 35-7 at home; looking to put an end to the long-time Steeler dominance over their divisional rivals.
But on Sunday that game will be eight weeks in the past, and much seems to have changed in the interim. While the Steelers are coming off a four-game win streak that was topped off with a will-imposing victory over the New England Patriots last week, the Ravens have struggled to maintain their form against lesser opponents to the likes of Jacksonville and Arizona.
If the Ravens have struggled, don't fault their defense. Currently ranked first in the league in yards per game and third down percentage, Baltimore is once again backing up its claims to one of the vaunted defensive units this decade. They also rank near the top of the league in both rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, points per game, sacks, and nearly every other defensive category. An inconsistent offense is the Ravens' weakness, capable of blowing out opponents before turning hapless in the blink of an eye.
Both teams are currently vying for a top stop in the AFC, but let's face it: Steelers vs. Ravens would be a premier match up regardless of records. The teams' similarities in terms of physicality and defensive emphasis leads to plenty of respect and hate among fans and players alike. What better way to celebrate this great NFL rivalry than under the lights and in front of a national audience on Sunday night? If Pittsburgh is to maintain its lead of the AFC with a win against Baltimore, these Five Players to Watch will have to stand out in their respective match ups.
5. Keenan Lewis, Cornerback, #23, 3rd Year
Did you know that Keenan Lewis is actually Mike Wallace's childhood friend and used to line up against him in his high school days? That (and new secondary coach Carnell Lake) might explain why the third year cornerback, after finally adjusting mentally to the professional game, has made such an impact in this year's new and improved Steelers secondary. While not officially named a starter, Lewis has come into the games for nickel packages and has covered the outside receiver with William Gay moving to the slot. His blanketing coverages against the likes of Deion Branch, Early Doucet, and Pierre Garcon are a major reason for the Steelers unexpectedly sporting the #1 pass defense in yards allowed this year.
Lewis' improved play comes at a time when many had already given up on him. He saw little action during his rookie year, and spent the 2010 season in Tomlin's doghouse after a forgettable preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But he seems to have gotten the hint this year, and the physical 6-0 corner will have his hands full on Sunday. Lewis will likely line up against Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith, a rookie receiver who has impressed onlookers with his explosiveness and speed by accumulating 326 yards on just 15 catches. Smith doesn't catch many passes, but a single lapse in coverage can be costly; just ask the Cardinals, who watched him catch a 36 yard pass just before the end of regulation that led to the Ravens' game-winning field goal. Having watched Lewis lining up against Wallace on numerous occasions in this year's training camp, I can attest that he has the physical gifts to play man coverage on any wide receiver in the NFL. A flawless game by the 2009 third round draft pick would go a long way toward eliminating the big play and helping the Steelers get their first divisional win.
4. Ramon Foster, Right Guard, #73, 3rd Year
It was 'pick your poison' this week along the offensive line, who will all need a great game on Sunday against a fearsome Ravens pass rush. Tackles Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert will have their hands full with Steeler nemesis Terrell Suggs on the left side and Jarrett Johnson on the right, but none will face a bigger challenge than Ramon Foster. That's because the former undrafted free agent will line up against man beast Haloti Ngata, who has terrorized teams around the league on his way to establishing himself as one of the best athletes to ever play the 3-4 defensive end position.
In week one, Doug Legursky's was faced with the thankless task of keeping Ngata from getting into the backfield, but too often he was unable to stop him from disrupting the play. Many will remember (or have chosen to forget) the play in the first series of the third quarter, when Ngata bulldozed through the line to force a Mendenhall fumble right at the hand off. The Ravens would score on the next play, putting the game away at 28-7 just a minute into the third quarter. Put simply, that is the kind of impact Ngata can have and has had on opposing offenses, and stopping or at least limiting him is absolutely crucial for a team to succeed against the Ravens. Ngata has not practiced on two consecutive days but is expected to play on Sunday. If he does, the task of limiting him will fall to Foster this week, who has had a solid impact on the offensive line with a some nice run blocks in and solid pass protection. Some question the athletic limitations of the 2009 UDFA, but he does potentially have the strength to face Ngata and at least somewhat limit his disruptive plays in both run blocking and pass protection. If he does so, Foster will play a significant part in securing a Steelers win against Baltimore.
3. Brett Keisel, Right Defensive End, #99, 10th Year
The journey Brett Keisel has taken in the past few years is nothing short of remarkable. A backup defensive end and special teams ace in his first four years, 'The Diesel' stepped in as a starter during the 2006 season and for years was known as yet another solid piece to a great defense. But with Aaron Smith nearing the end of his career, Keisel has stepped up his game this year and last and has arguably become the best defensive lineman on the Steelers roster. He was named to his first pro bowl last year and even became nationally known, though partially because of his extensive beard. Not bad for a player who was once drafted in the seventh round with little hopes of ever becoming a starter.
Beyond becoming an indispensable player on an elite defense, Keisel has become a leader by example by making crucial plays when they matter most. Who could forget his sack in the game against Jacksonville with one minute left and the Jaguars pressing for one last drive? How about the forced fumble that sealed the game last week against the Patriots? Whenever the Steeler defense has been in a tough spot this year, he has bailed them out. He will need to do so once more against the Ravens, who will likely welcome back starting LG Ben Grubbs on Sunday. The Steelers need to generate a pass rush against Baltimore to fluster Flacco, while at the same time not giving up lanes in the run game. With multiple pass rushing specialists on the team questionable, that pass rush will have to come from Keisel - second on the team with three sacks this season. If neither Woodley nor Harrison is healthy, we just might see a continuation of weeks past in which he was utilized as a 'monster backer,' standing up and moving around, even dropping into coverage. Coaches have routinely called Keisel the best athlete on the team, and his special teams experience might be beneficial to playing a hybrid-linebacker spot. But wherever he plays, Brett Keisel needs to have a large role in the Steelers pass rush to come away from Heinz Field with a victory.
2. Outside Linebackers, Both Sides, #92, #56, #93, #54, #94
Alright, I'll admit it, I cheated a bit on this one. But how are you supposed to pick a 'Player to Watch' at a spot where either one of five players could play on Sunday? Especially if that spot is among the most crucial in any Steelers-Ravens game. The outside linebacker position has been an injury disaster in the past few weeks, with 2008 defensive player of the year James Harrison recovering from a broken orbital bone while pro bowler LaMarr Woodley is nursing a sprained hamstring and top backup Jason Worilds has sat out the past two games with a quad injury. And right at that point, the Ravens come to town in potential determinant of this year's AFC North championship.
It's too early to despair entirely though. Woodley has not ruled out a return against Baltimore, while Harrison returned to practice on Wednesday and Worilds fully expects to play Sunday. At the same time, rookie Chris Carter showed his inexperience against the Patriots but also had a couple of nice quarterback pressures while Lawrence Timmons has made the most out of his move to the outside. Against an offense that depends heavily on the deep ball and the running game, pressuring Flacco becomes absolutely critical. Especially since as of last week the 4th year Quarterback has done worse than anyone else under pressure according to ProFootballFocus, completing just 37% of his passes and throwing three interceptions. Securing the edge against a dangerous cutback runner like Ray Rice is just as important. Worilds, Carter, or Timmons might get the job done but let's face it: having either Harrison or Woodley (or both? Let me dream...) line up on the line of scrimmage would lead to many a Steelers fan breathing a huge sigh of relief. Both players have their history of terrorizing the Ravens offense, whether it be Harrison's now-famous coming out party in 2007 or Woodley's fumble recovery for a touchdown in 2008. Whoever ends up facing the Ravens' tackles needs to once again have a huge game.
1. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, #7, 8th Season
A win against Baltimore requires more than just five players to play at their best. Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert will need to do their part to keep Roethlisberger upright against a lethal Ravens edge rush. A few strong rushes from Rashard Mendenhall, especially in the red zone, could go a long way toward giving Roethlisberger time in the pocket. The inside linebackers need to do a better job containing Ray Rice than they did in the opener, when he accounted for 150 yards from scrimmage. And a big play from Troy Polamalu, who has been a game changer against the Ravens so many times, would be greatly appreciated. Who are your Five Players to Watch this week?