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Steelers vs. Ravens game preview: 'Skinny guys' on display in Week 11

Steelers/Ravens games are usually about physical dominance, but without headliners of the marquee days of this rivalry, it may have more of a "finesse" feel to it in Week 11.

Larry French

Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace was quoted in the Tribune-Review recently having said the Steelers vs. Ravens games have "more skinny guys now," referencing what Wallace feels is more of a shift to a "finesse" game as opposed to the power and physicality the game has been known for through the heady days of the rivalry.

When taking injuries into account - a probable reason for the alleged philosophical shift - his claim seems accurate.

In many ways, the two teams facing each other in Week 11 are the least like the Steelers and Ravens teams of the past. Gone are Ray Lewis and Hines Ward. Out are Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger. Banged up are James Harrison, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.

The warriors who did battle at the height of the rivalry have been replaced, at least for this game, by the slight bodied Wallace and Torrey Smith, the athletic Courtney Upshaw and Mike Adams.

Perhaps Todd Heap's build was more like David Paulson's, but the gap between all other tight ends in this game and Heath Miller in terms of power blocking is enormous.

The rivalry itself likely won't change until a time one of these two teams goes on a season-to-season losing streak, and barring a surprise run to the playoffs, would only lean on the memory of the classic games of the past. There's still the menacing guards, Willie Colon and Marshal Yanda, and the physically imposing Casey Hampton and Terrence Cody.

Sunday's game, though, is going to depend largely on the Steelers' ability to use speed out of the backfield (they have an advantage on the ground with Rashard Mendenhall) and Baltimore's ability to attack the Steelers' secondary outside the numbers with their wide receivers, and down the seam with their tight ends.

Baltimore's tight ends are below average blockers, but effective targets in the passing game. A team that used to line up double-tight and dare safeties to come down and try to block them has given way to essentially a vertical passing team that's only run the ball with Ray Rice 47 times in the last three games. They've had 101 pass attempts in that same stretch.

Granted, they threw 43 times in a blowout loss at Houston, and ran Rice 28 times in a win over Cleveland, but that same lack of consistent identity is really the signature of the Ravens nowadays.

Odds are excellent the Ravens employ much of what Kansas City did - attack the Steelers' defensive left side on stretch runs, but they'll also run power between the guards, forcing LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood to fight for that edge. But it seems like that strategy only serves to setting up a seven-step drop with two vertical options.

The Raiders did an outstanding job of shutting down Baltimore's running game, largely due to the poor blocking from LG Bobbie Williams (who was replaced by Jah Reid in the first half), C Matt Birk and TE Ed Dickson. But Baltimore racked up points through their vertical passing attack against Oakland's overwhelmed secondary.

The Ravens had a huge touchdown run by Ray Rice called back on a holding penalty on their first offensive snap in their game at Pittsburgh last year. It was a simple one-cut stretch run off the Steelers' right side. Don't be at all surprised if Baltimore runs play action out of that same play with Smith running a delay fly pattern very early in this game.

Pittsburgh's ability to defend outside the numbers - and get their defensive linemen to gain outside leverage against the zone run, will be the difference in this game. The Steelers defense dominates one-dimensional offenses (they may have given up 140 rushing yards against Kansas City, but they also allowed 290 total yards and the Chiefs were 2-for-13 on third down.

If Pittsburgh can stop the run the way Oakland did - and have a good chance of doing that - Baltimore will have to face their road demons in making Flacco throw 40 times or more. They may hit a play or two, but Baltimore can't feel out-and-out comfortable with that strategy over four quarters.