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Five Key Matchups in the Steelers vs. Ravens Week 4 game

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are about to lock horns on Thursday Night Football. Take a look at 5 key matchups which could lead to the black and gold's 3rd victory of 2015.

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Cowboys versus Redskins in the 70s and 80s, Red Sox versus Yankees and Roadrunner versus Coyote were always the greatest of rivalries for me back in the day. During the past 20 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have had epic confrontations that warrant their inclusion on the list of best rivalries in all of sports.

The rivalry can best be summed up by Hines Ward, a major player in this festival of hate, when he once said, "The coaches hate each other, the players hate each other... There's no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner. But the feeling's mutual: They don't like us, and we don't like them. There's no need to hide it, they know it and we know it. It's going to be one of those black and blue games."

This series has it all, from four playoff-showdowns to close games; to controversial calls; to heroic performances; to fantastic finishes; to cheap shots; to fights (on the field and in the parking lot); to alleged bounties; to fan name-calling and mockery of criminal activity; to sideline interference to death threats; to...forget it, I could go on for days.

The bottom line is that it's the equivalent to (with apologies to Tom Petty, but not the Heartbreakers) "Full Moon Fever" when these two clubs get together, and it resumes tonight in the Steel City.

The Steelers hold a slight lead of 24-18 in this divisional rivalry, including a 3-1 advantage in the postseason. However, the Ravens had the last laugh in 2014, defeating Pittsburgh in last year's Wildcard game.

The Ravens come into this game at 0-3, while the Steelers limp in without the services of their quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), center (Maurkice Pouncey), second-best receiver (Martavis Bryant) and their dynamic defensive standout (Ryan Shazier).

Regardless of the pre-game storylines, this is a throw-out-the-records rivalry. The Ravens are hungry to get into the win column and the Steelers are desperate to prove they can win without their leader.

Batten down the hatches...It's Ravens-Steelers Week!

Here are five of the dozens of key matchups to focus on during the Steelers divisional showdown with their good friends (I truly hope that you recognize the fine art of sarcasm), the Baltimore Ravens.

Key Matchup #1

QB Michael Vick vs The Ravens Defense and a Short Week

There are a plethora of perplexing questions surrounding Mike Vick's upcoming tenure as a Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback. But in my opinion, the Steelers' success and survival during the absence of Ben Roethlisberger really comes down to merely a couple of key factors: game plan, getting rid of the ball quickly and ball security.

The 35-year-old isn't the Swiss Army knife that he was in the early 2000s, and you don't expect him to run like he once did. However, the fact that he doesn't have the molasses legs a la Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Bruce Gradkowski, means that he can escape the pressure if he needs to. But where the problem lies is the fact that the longer that Vick hangs on to the ball (which he's apt to do), the greater the potential for disaster. Vick has a propensity to be loose with the ball and prone to fumbling. The veteran has lost the ball 17 times in his last 40 games.

The best way to remedy this is to make great use of the short game with slants and screens. In Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell, he has three exceptional weapons at his disposal to dump it off to. Vick doesn't have to go out there and pass all day long, nor does he need to simply be a game manager. What he has to do is follow a creative game plan and play to his strengths and to those of his teammates.

What is not well appreciated, is that No. 2 can throw a very good deep ball. But, again, he needs to find the time and patience to get rid of it, do it quickly and tone down his instinct to take off and run.

The team can succeed with Vick under center if Todd Haley can develop a plan that fits Michael Vick's skill set and not just insert him and ask him to be Ben Roethlisberger. The fear here is that only three days of preparation may not be enough time to implement a new scheme.

The Raven D ranks 22nd in the league, allowing an average of 375 yards per game, but they're not adept in rushing the passer. A simplified game plan with heavy doses of handing-off to Bell plus short passes to Bell, Brown and Miller represents the best way to succeed this week against Baltimore and beyond.

Key Matchup #2

CB William Gay and S Will Allen vs QB Joe Flacco and WR Steve Smith, Sr.


I don't know what it is but, when it comes to playing the quarterback position against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Joe Flacco seems to rise to another dimension. Flacco is only 7-7 against Pittsburgh, but the Baltimore signal caller has 17 touchdown passes versus six interceptions and 3,070 yards when facing them. In clutch moments against his main rival, Flacco can complete that crucial pass milliseconds before absorbing a crushing hit. This is painful to type.

Despite being winless in 2015, No. 5 has completed 65.08% of his passes for 863 yards and four touchdowns. That average of 287.67 yards per game ranks him eighth in the league. But four interceptions, especially the pick-six at the end of the third quarter in Denver, has taken off the luster and contributed to the team's winless start.

One of the main problems facing Flacco is the lack of quality wide receivers to throw to besides Triple S. Gone is Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Brashaud Perriman, their first-round selection hasn't seen the field yet due to injury. Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken have a combined 12 catches (six a piece) for 66 and 88 yards respectively. The tight ends have contributed, but they need more than one weapon to stretch the field.

Flacco's No. 1 dance partner is clearly Steve Smith. 30.49% of his completions (25) and 40.44% of his passing yards (349) have been due to hooking up with Smith Sr. This is a money combo and the Steelers shouldn't be surprised to see this tandem conspire against them to score.

Gay appears to be destined to lock horns with #89. So far this season, Big Play Will Gay has one pass defensed and has been the toughest Steeler corner to pass on for a team that ranks 19th in passing defense. He will need some help and that hopefully will come in the form of Will Allen.

Allen was lights-out in the St. Louis game and clearly has taken the reins as leader of the secondary. Against the Rams, Allen had seven tackles, an interception and one pass defensed.

If Gay and Allen, along with the rest of the Steeler defensive backfield, can silence the duet of Flacco and SSS...that can go a long way in the favor of a defense that no longer will need a high-powered offense to bail them out.

Key Matchup #3
RT Marcus Gilbert vs OLB Courtney Upshaw

Due to the shift from a right-hander to a left-handed quarterback, Gilbert becomes the protector of the blind side. The encouraging news is that the 6-foot-6, 330-pounder has had experience guarding Ben on the left side previously.  Gilbert gave up a sack every 87 snaps last year, the most of any 2014 starter, but he did improve as the season wore on.

The Ravens have not boasted a dominant pass rush this season. Upshaw, the man lining up against Gilbert,
has eight tackles and no sacks this year. But he has a strong motor and will challenge Gilbert on every snap.

If activated, newly-acquired OLB Jason Babin might also line up opposite Gilbert.

So far in 2015, Gilbert hasn't allowed any sacks and has only one holding penalty. He'll need to continue that solid play to keep Vick safe or we'll grudgingly welcome in the Landry Jones era.

Key Matchup #4
RB Le'Veon Bell vs ILB C.J. Mosley and NT Brandon Williams

While Bell's 62 rushing yards for 3.3 yards-per-carry in his season's debut against St. Louis seemed like a lower output than one might expect from him, Le'Veon's seven receptions for 70 yards out of the backfield are where his greatest contribution came.

Facing the Ram's tough run defense, the Steelers knew that running the ball would be challenging and they did a fine job utilizing Bell as a receiver. With Rothlisberger out, Le'Veon wants and is expected to carry a majority of the load. But the Ravens, who rank seventh against the run and have allowed only 85 yards on the ground, will likely stack the box to limit Bell and dare Vick to beat them. That's where the short passing game will help open things up for the Steelers' offense.

Mosley, who has 21 tackles on the young season already, is a talented side-to-side stalker who displays great fundamentals.

Williams is a dominant run-stuffer, but he only plays on first and second downs. At 6'1" and 335 lbs, Williams is strong, plays low and has the ability to seize the advantage in the run game. Last season, Brandon accumulated 46 tackles in 14 games. Already this season, he has 16.

The two Raven punishers will have Le'Veon on the radar and in their crosshairs all night long.

This will be a fun battle to watch between some of the most exciting, young talents at their respective positions. The man who gets the upper hand, will give the same to his team.

Key Matchup #5

ILBs Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Vince Williams vs TE Maxx Williams

Throughout the last 20 years, the Steelers have always had trouble containing whomever Baltimore lined up at the tight end position. Shannon Sharpe, Todd Heap, Dennis Pitta, Owen Daniels, Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark and Eric Green are all part of a rich tradition at that position in the Charm City. It's mainly because their General Manager, Ozzie Newsome, is a Hall of Fame TE and knows how to evaluate talent at that spot so well. Now the Ravens have a new, bumper crop of them in Gilmore and Williams to continue their dominance there and give Pittsburgh matchup fits for the next decade.

Both selected in the early rounds in the previous two seasons, this young duo is already proving to have the potential to be playmakers.

Gilmore already has 10 receptions in 2015 for 151 yards and two scores. The 6-foot-6 bruiser from Colorado State burned the Steelers in the playoffs last year for a 21-yard touchdown reception.

Williams, the man whom the Ravens traded-up ahead of the Steelers to get, is a talented pass-catcher from the University of Minnesota. The 6-foot-4 Williams has five catches for 67 yards, a 13.4 average and an extra 'X' in his name.

Shazier is out again this week. His inclusion in the lineup makes a big difference but, given how much he was favoring that shoulder in a sling on the sidelines in St. Louis, we aren't going to see No. 50 roaming the middle of Heinz Field on Thursday.

Vince Williams is more of a run-stopper, so I would expect Timmons or Spence to get the bulk of the coverage duties here. However, the outside linebackers do drop into coverage and the secondary will need to help out too.

Flacco is hoping to utilize Gilmore and Williams often, but Gilmore is banged up and his status is still shrouded in mystery. If he doesn't play, Williams is talented enough to shoulder the load. Either way, neutralizing the TE threat will be essential for the Steeler defense to stop the Ravens.

Honorable Mention:

ROLBs Jarvis Jones and James Harrison vs LT James Hurst

DE Cam Heyward vs OG Kelechi Osemele

NT Steve McLendon vs C Jeremy Zuttah

WR Antonio Brown vs CB Jimmy Smith

TE Heath Miller vs ILB Daryl Smith