Joe Flacco vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Until this year, this was a clear cut "advantage: Pittsburgh". But the tide might just be changing.
Roethlisberger (leaving his off the field behavior out of the discussion) is a strong armed QB who is good at moving around in the pocket, is extremely hard to bring down, and is possibly even more accurate when on the run than he is in the pocket. His ability to tuck the ball in and run makes it difficult for a defense to let him create time in the backfield, and his ability to throw on the run (to receivers who are adept at coming back to the QB and getting open when the pocket collapses) make it hard for the second level defenders (usually LBs) to drop their coverage and converge on the QB. But he has lost some weapons with the trade of Santonio Holmes and lost some mobility with a right foot injury (he was in a walking boot this week, but expects to play). He is still a beast to tackle / sack, but if the first arriving defender wraps him up and doesn't let him break contain his playmaking abilities are severely diminished.
It is easy to dismiss the fact that Joe Flacco is only in his 3rd year and still learning how to play in the NFL, but it is true. If you have been watching him, he has been one of the best QBs in the NFL since Week 3 (after his dismal 4 INT performance in Week 2). He is still at his best when the team goes no huddle and he is playing out of the shotgun (which is what he did almost exclusively in college). He likes to go through his reads quickly, and usually if the 1st or 2nd read isn't open he will go to his checkdown, which is his TE or RB. He throws a good deep ball, and he might be the best QB in the league at 12-15 yard out routes. However, he can have problems w/his mechanics, especially when he is being pressured (he has a tendency to throw off of his back foot and push the ball with his arm instead of stepping into the throw and letting his legs do the work), and he still hasn't mastered moving in the pocket to avoid pressure or rolling out to his strong side so that he doesn't have to throw across his body when he is out of the pocket. Also, like a lot of young QBs, he doesn't have a good feel for when to give up and throw the ball away to avoid a sack, and to tuck the ball away when he is getting sacked. He is getting better at these things, but he isn't there yet.
Advantage: Pittsburgh (but by a much more narrow margin than before)
Ray Rice vs. Rashard Mendenhall
Mendenhall is another in a long line of big, physical RBs in Pittsburgh. He isn't going to scoot around and hide behind his blockers and wait for something to open up for him, he is going to take the ball, make a cut, and hit where the hole is supposed to be (whether it is there or not. And if it isn't there, he'll try to make it exist all by himself). Mendenhall is not a pass catcher and not a threat to flex out to a slot position. If he is in the game he is either going to run the ball or block for the guy who has the ball.
Ray Rice is the exact opposite of Mendenhall. He is smaller and shifty, and can actually disappear behind his linemen, making it hard for defenses to find him until he breaks through the line. Rice can hit you hard, but he can also juke you out of your shoes an leave you grasping at air. He is always a threat to peel out to the flat or to go to the soft middle of a defense and catch a pass, and once he is in the open field he is hard to tackle.
Their primary relievers are in fact the polar opposites of the starters. For the Steelers it is Mewelde Moore who will go out and catch passes and slip and slide all over the field. Willis McGahee backs up Rice, and he will come at you with as much steam as he can have built up behind him. Neither backup is as complete in their role as the starter is in theirs (in other words, McGahee is no Mendenhall when it comes to bulldozing opposing players, and Moore is never going to be mistaken for Rice with the ball in his hands in the open field), but both offer a nice change of pace from the main man.
The Steelers do not have any FBs on their roster, while the Ravens have 2 time Pro Bowler Le'Ron McClain (however, McClain is recovering from an injury suffered in the Bucs game so the Ravens just signed Jason McKie, a 9 year veteran most recently with the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears).
Advantage: Ravens. The Ravens RBs are more versatile and more active in the game plan.
Tomorrow we'll look at the receivers and secondaries for both teams. Join us then. And as always, comments, questions, complaints, and offers of corporate sponsorship are always welcome.