Steelers Offensive Line vs. Ravens Defensive Line and Linebackers
The Steelers have been hurting at this position all year. They've lost tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks for the year and had to bring in Flozell Adams, a player very much on the downside of his career. In fact, their current LT (Jonathan Scott) is their top backup for Adams on the right side. LG Chris Kemoeatu has been hurting, and C Maurkice Pouncey is a rookie that might be hitting the "rookie wall". The Steelers gave up 5 sacks last week to the Buffalo Bills, which does not bode well for them.
The Ravens front seven has been a disappointment this year. Players have not been staying in their gaps, allowing holes for RBs to exploit. Also, they have not been getting pressure on the QB which has been exposing the secondary's limitations. But they last few weeks have been better. OLB Terrell Suggs has been getting more pressure from the edge (and was just named AFC Player of the Month for November), and his partner on the other side Jarret Johnson has been having another quietly solid season. DT Haloti Ngata is arguably one of the best in the game right now at his position, and along w/NT Kelley Gregg and DE Cory Redding, they have been taking care of their responsibilities and over the past month have been pushing into the pocket and forcing the offense to alter their gameplan. Rookie NT Terrence Cody is still very much a work in progress, and 2nd year guy Paul Kruger is making the adjustment from LB to DE, but he is also showing signs of improvement. Finally, we have ILBs Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain (or Dannell Ellerbe, depending on who they start that week). At this point, pretty much everything there is to say about Lewis has been said. He has lost a step (15 years in the NFL has a way of putting a little hitch in your giddy up), but he is one of the smartest players in the game, and he studies film like a coach. McClain / Ellerbe are passable at best, but neither stand out as anything more than that.
Advantage: Ravens. This is the area where the Ravens can do the most damage to the Steelers and have the most effect on the outcome of the game.
Ravens Offensive Line vs. Steelers Defensive Line and Linebackers
The Ravens have a lot riding on LT Michael Oher's knee right now. If he can play and play as well as he did in Week 4 (when he and RT Marshal Yanda held the Pittsburgh outside rush w/out a sack), then this becomes an advantage: Ravens. If they can't (and while he has been fully participating, Oher injured his right knee against Tampa Bay last week, and that is a concern), this gets a lot tighter. Yanda has done a good job moving from the RG position to cover for Jared Gaither (who is on the IR list), and RG Chris Chester has done a good job of filling in for Yanda (even if Yanda is better suited for RG and Chester for C). Chester has missed the last 2 games due to cellulitis in his lower legs (bacterial skin infection. I've been there. It sucks), but has been practicing this week. His return would be huge in helping the Ravens neutralize the big guys on the Steelers line. Ben Grubbs is the LG, and he is another quiet player playing well and not getting any attention, which is the curse of playing guard on the OL.
When you talk about the Steelers front seven, the first name you have to talk about is OLB James Harrison. I mentioned the other day that even Terrell Suggs thinks that he is being unfairly targeted for his aggressive style of play. But he gets in the backfield and he creates havoc along with his cohort OLB LaMarr Woodley (and in the zone blitz schemes of DC Dick LeBeau you can also expect pressure from ILBs Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior, who are not exactly slouches in both pass rushing or run stopping). The big man in the middle of the Steelers line is NT Casey Hampton, who is joined on the line by DEs Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. The Steelers are a top 5 defense again (including #1 against the run), and a lot of that has to do with the way the front 3 eat up the offense's blockers and let the LBs flow to the ball carrier. This defense is the biggest reason why the Steelers were able to go 3-1 without Roethlisberger at the start of the season. Year in and year out they are a legitimate force.
Advantage: Push. (if I had to make a selection I would go with the Steelers here, but the Ravens handled them pretty well last time and the line has been playing better as of late. The apparent health of Oher and the return of Chester mean I am not going to call this one either way)
Later today, Special Teams, and a look at the coaches.