By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It’s all about matchups in the NFL, and it should be no different for the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) and Baltimore Ravens (13-4) when the AFC North rivals kick off Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Even though the teams already have played twice this season and seven time in three years, the Steelers and Ravens will attempt to exploit the opposition’s weak spots. There aren’t two many on either side, or the two teams wouldn’t have been so successful and gotten this far, but there are a few.
TERRELL SUGGS vs. JONATHAN SCOTT or FLOZELL ADAMS
The Ravens move Suggs around quite a bit, but they likely will go at Scott as much as possible. And the Steelers left tackle better be ready for him, because Scott has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.
Suggs had a sack in each previous game against the Steelers and added two in Baltimore’s playoff opener with Kansas City. Any production against the Steelers by Suggs will be counterproductive to their advancement into the AFC Championship game. Scott got a little feisty when the media asked him about Suggs this week, but maybe he’ll play better if he keeps that edge.
“(Suggs) is a heckuva player,” Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “Whoever has to block him has an all day job. He’s one tough character.”
HALOTI NGATA vs. MAURKICE POUNCEY
The Steelers rookie center acknowledged that the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Ngata was the toughest matchup he had all season.
“He’s strong and athletic, and sometimes I’m not going to get any help blocking him. That Kelly Gregg is a big, tough guy, too, so we’ll have our hands full up front. And with Suggs coming from all sides, it’s not going to be easy to keep them off Ben, but I think we’ll do a good job. We have to.”
TODD HEAP vs. LAWRENCE TIMMONS
The Ravens tight end is healthy again, and he’ll be a threat in Baltimore’s passing game for sure. Whether it’s catching dump-offs or something downfield, Timmons likely will be matched against him or at least he should be.
“He’s a pretty big guy, about 6-5 and 250, so he’s a handful for anybody,” Timmons said. “But any defensive back would have a real tough time on him, so I’ll probably be on him most of the time. Maybe James Farrior, too, but we’ll see. We’ll definitely be aware of where he is on the field.”
Heap was injured in the last game and wasn’t much of a factor.
JOE FLACCO & RAY RICE vs. THE STEELERS’ RUN DEFENSE
Rice is the only running back to surpass the 100-yard mark against the Steelers in the last 50 games with 141 in Week 16 in 2009. But this year, only one team hit the century mark in rushing yardage, as the Steelers nearly set an NFL record with 62.8 rushing yards allowed per game.
Flacco uses Rice more than any other player, as the back surpassed 1,200 yards and 60 catches this season. He has just 52 TOTAL rushing yards against the Steelers this season, and if they shut him down again the onus will be on Flacco to snap his record five straight losses against Ben Roethlisberger.
“We’ll be looking to shut down the run, as always,” Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. “If we can stop Rice, that puts a lot of pressure on Flacco, and he hasn’t always handled it too well against us.”
BILLY CUNDIFF vs. SHAUN SUISHAM
The Ravens’ place-kicker made the Pro Bowl, while Suisham has made nearly every kick since replacing Jeff Reed at midseason. He is 14-for-15 with tremendous range, but for him to completely wipe Reed from fans’ minds he’ll need to excel in the playoffs where Reed was 16-for-18 overall.
Cundiff is 26-for-29 this season with 40 touchbacks on kickoffs, so he earned his trip to Hawaii. Suisham has had previous playoff misses haunt him, whether he admits it or not.
“I try not to think about those things, because they’re in the past,” Suisham said. “Billy’s a great kicker, and he’s been automatic this year. But I’ve been pretty good, too, and the weather hasn’t been that good all year. So, I’m used to that. It should be a matchup this week.”
BEN ROETHLISBERGER vs. ED REED
The Ravens’ safety had eight interceptions to lead the league this season, even though he was on injured reserve the first six games. All the Steelers said they need to know where he is on the field when the ball is snapped.
“Yeah, that’s for sure,” Roethlisberger said. “He probably doesn’t move around as much as Troy does for us, but he’s just as dangerous. If it looks like you can beat him, he’s probably baiting you. I don’t think you want to throw the ball too many teams in an area where he’s hanging around.”
Reed has made few game-changing plays against the Steelers overall and Roethlisberger in particular, but Arians said there was a reason for that.
“I tell our guys to stay away from him,” Arians said. “(And) I’ve beat it into Ben’s head that he better know where Reed is when he releases the ball. That’s all there is to it.”
RAY LEWIS-THE RAVENS’ RUN DEFENSE vs. RASHARD MENDENHALL
The Steelers’ running back has tailed off a bit during the latter half of the season, but he’s still a threat to the Ravens. Maybe Mendenhall could help loosen the Baltimore defense if he can catch some passes as well as run hard.
“He’s a good running back, but he can’t beat us all by himself,” Lewis said. “He’s fast, but he’s not going to wear us down if we can keep him between the tackles. What we can’t do is allow him to bounce outside and break off a big gain. So, we have to contain him and Ben and lot let them loose.”
Nearly every previous game between these bitter rivals has been close, so winning either of these matchups could be the difference in the game.