McNair has made a career out of beating Pittsburgh. He is 12-4 all time against the Steelers, and is coming off a groin injury suffered in Week 1 against Cincinnati. He torched the Steelers for 396 yards with four TDs and two interceptions in Baltimore's two wins over Pittsburgh last year. If he can establish the passing game as a threat, as he has against the Steelers his entire career, it will force SS Troy Polamalu out of the box and back into coverage. The last two quarterbacks the Steelers have faced, Denver's Jay Cutler and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, have been successful in doing that in parts of those games. Cincinnati's Kenny Watson threatened to crack 100 yards last week, and if it wasn't for his late fumble, he would have had a good chance of doing it. Palmer's success (23-for-31 passing) set much of that up.
Polamalu is at his best when attacking the line of scrimmage. If he is able to get close to the line and disguise his intentions, he can dictate the distribution of the offense. With Baltimore's young offensive line, and the Steelers' ability to dominate the ground game at the point of attack, Polamalu likely will set up shop inside the box. If Polamalu is successful in disrupting McNair's initial read on passing downs, the Steelers can do what they do best – mix up their coverage and their blitzers. This will lead to turnovers and an overall ineffectiveness of an offense that comes into Monday night's game ranked 25th in the league with 17.7 points per game. Polamalu will likely shade TE Todd Heap on third downs if he plays. Heap is currently listed as questionable with a quadriceps injury that has kept him out of two of the Ravens' last three games, and hasn't recorded a catch since Week 4 against Cleveland.
Steelers starting LDE Aaron Smith is listed as questionable, but coach Mike Tomlin says he has a shot of playing Monday. Smith missed his first game since coming into the league in 1999 (115 straight games) last week against Cincinnati, and the Steelers did not register a sack for the first time this year. They allowed a season-high 88 individual yards to RB Kenny Watson as well. It's not a coincidence. Eason can't fully replace the underrated Smith, but he didn't occupy blockers with the same success Smith usually does. Palmer had plenty of time to throw, and through that, he completed 74 percent of his passes.
The Ravens are third in the NFL in time of possession at 33:17 a game. They will want to establish the run, and chew off the clock. Smith is as valuable to the Steelers' run defense as he is to the pass, and if he's unable to go, look for the Ravens to pound away with RB Willis McGahee right at Eason behind Terry as long as the game is close. Eason is going to have to force McGahee to cut back, right into the open arms of the sure-tackling Larry Foote and James Farrior.
McAlister is still listed as questionable for Monday's game, as he is nursing a right knee injury that forced him out of their Week 7 loss at Buffalo. McAlister has a long history with Ward and the Steelers receivers, and is generally considered one of the better cover corners in the AFC. If McAlister can't go, it will be veteran CB Samari Rolle, sliding over from the other corner position, and CB Corey Ivy. This will give Pittsburgh a distinct advantage in the passing game.
Ward is coming off a strong eight-catch, 88 yard game with two touchdowns against Cincinnati last week. Odds are good that Baltimore's defense won't be as lost as Cincinnati's seemed to be most of the game, but Ward is a gamer, and will exploit any coverage mismatch. He still shows his ability to get open down the field, as well as making big third down catches. Getting Ward involved early and often will open up WR Santonio Holmes on the other side against Ivy, and that will occupy FS Ed Reed, leaving Ward with likely single coverage. Ivy cannot compete with Holmes' speed down the field, and Ward will be a big part of opening that mismatch up.
Pryce practiced on Thursday, and is expected to suit up on Monday. He hasn't played since Week 2, and despite the emergence of DT Kelly Gregg as a solid player (as well as DT Haloti Ngata), Pryce is the key to the Ravens' pass rush. If he is able to occupy Colon, or confuse him, it leaves and LB Bart Scott more in winnable one-on-one situations.
Colon has showed he is a capable run blocker at this point in his career. The jury is still out in his pass protection. He will need to be on his game mentally against the savvy veteran Pryce, as well as against the highly talented Ravens defense. The Ravens teed off on the Steelers and QB Ben Roethlisberger last year, and this opponent was a big reason why the Steelers changed right tackles from Max Starks to Colon.
|The Coolong Scorecard|