Ray Rice’s three lowest rushing totals from last season came against the Steelers. In three meetings, he rushed for 20, 32 and 32 yards. But the Ravens are confident in revitalizing the NFL’s 14th-ranked rushing attack with the free-agent signing of All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach. The Steelers have allowed only one 100-yard rusher in their last 50 games (which dates back to 2007), but that one player was Rice. Pittsburgh led the league in fewest rushing yards per game (62.8) and per carry (3.0). The challenge of moving nose tackle Casey Hampton is increased because Ravens center Matt Birk didn’t play the entire preseason after having knee surgery.
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Ravens pass offense vs. Steelers pass defense
In eight games against the Steelers (including playoffs), Joe Flacco has completed 53.4 percent of his passes and averaged 193.7 yards passing. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and eight interceptions for a rating of 68.5. Not all the blame can be placed on Flacco, who has watched receivers drop passes and lineman fail to pick up blitzes. The Ravens need to take advantage of speedy wide receiver Lee Evans, who is replacing Derrick Mason. He stretched the field in the preseason, averaging a team-best 21.3 yards per catch. If the Ravens want to get the ball downfield, new left tackle Bryant McKinnie and recently moved right tackle Michael Oher have to slow down pass rushers James Harrison (10 ½ sacks last season) and LaMarr Woodley (9 ½).
Steelers run offense vs. Ravens run defense
The Ravens is looking to remain a top-5 rushing defense for the sixth straight season. Last season, the Ravens allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game (93.9) and only five rushing touchdowns, which tied Pittsburgh for fewest in the NFL. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis is starting his 16th season opener after leading the Ravens last season with 145 tackles. The Ravens have never really had trouble stopping Rashard Mendenhall, who has averaged three yards per carry in five regular-season meetings. Mendenhall’s biggest strengths are producing big plays and punching it into the end zone (team-leading 13 touchdowns last season). The Ravens’ Terrence Cody, a second-round pick from a year ago, replaces long-time starting nose tackle Kelly Gregg.
Steelers pass offense vs. Ravens pass defense
Ben Roethlisberger’s impact in this series goes beyond statistics. In his past six games vs. the Ravens – all wins – he has averaged 238 yards passing, throwing seven touchdowns and four interceptions. The reason why he gives the Ravens so many fits is his ability to escape sacks and extend plays. The Ravens’ greatest concern is speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace, who led the NFL with seven 100-yard receiving games. Cary Williams is expected to start at cornerback after a strong preseason. The other starting cornerback will either be Domonique Foxworth, who isn’t fully recovered from last year’s knee surgery; Jimmy Smith, a rookie first-round pick; or Chris Carr, who has been limited in preseason with a hamstring injury. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more than any other player in the NFL (12 ½ times).
There’s no comparison when it comes to the team’s specialists. The Ravens have two of the NFL’s best in kicker Billy Cundiff and punter Sam Koch. Cundiff is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and made his final 14 field goals in the regular season. Koch had a great preseason, netting 42.8 yards on his punts, which was over three yards more than last season’s average. Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham made 14 of 15 field goals after replacing Jeff Reed but he lacks a strong leg. Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda, who has suffered three knee injuries including one last season, only netted 36.2 yards on his punts this preseason. Undrafted rookie LaQuan Williams (Poly and Maryland) is expected to field punts for the Ravens after both of his returns this preseason went over 30 yards.
Roethlisberger has owned the Ravens over the past four seasons, winning seven straight meetings. Although the Ravens have the third-best regular-season home record since 2000 (65-23), Roethlisberger has won his last two starts at M&T Bank Stadium (2008 and 2010), delivering come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter both times. The Ravens have never lost a season opener under coach John Harbaugh, but the Steelers have won eight straight openers – the longest streak in the NFL. Continuity could be a factor in a lockout-shortened offseason, which is advantage for the Steelers, who made fewer moves than the Ravens this offseason (Pittsburgh added seven players and the Ravens brought in 20).
The 2011 season will begin like the last one ended. In yet another game that will come down to the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger will make the critical play and the Ravens won’t. In the Harbaugh era, the Ravens’ biggest obstacle to the AFC North title remains Roethlisberger.