Everybody knows a lot of the keys to the Baltimore Ravens success against the Pittsburgh Steelers will fall on the shoulders of QB Joe Flacco. They also know if the offensive line blocks well, the passing and running games will have a much better chance at success against the stingy Steelers defense. On the other side of the ball, if the Ravens defense can not only pressure but take down QB Ben Roethlisberger, then Ed Reed will perhaps get that much-needed interception that could change the game.
But which players outside the "star-status" level might make a significant contribution that could turn the tide in the Ravens favor and kick-start the 2011 NFL regular season off with a bang this Sunday at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium?
Offensively, other than the big names, we should keep an eye on left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Coming in late to Training Camp, McKinnie is still not in tip-top playing shape and might not have enough gas to last all game, especially against the onslaught of Steelers LB James Harrison. However, he is a former All-Pro, much bigger and more importantly "longer" than former LT Michael Oher, who had his hands full with Harrison in their previous meetings.
Lee Evans will be a welcome addition to the offense, not only for actually catching the ball, but for drawing coverage away from Anquan Boldin, the tight ends and Ray Rice out of the backfield. No longer can defenses stack the box and dare the Ravens to throw or they will be very sorry and burned repeatedly, especially if the o-line holds up.
Fullback Vonta Leach could very well be the difference maker in the offenses ability to run the ball against the Steelers. Listen closely for the 'whack' of helmets and pads whenever Leach leads Rice through what should shortly be a huge hole in the defense and tell me seriously, could LeRon McClain do that?
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens have a solid veteran presence that we all know who they are and what they can do. However a few new faces will be the key to the game on this side of the ball. Tom Zbikowski is most familiar with the ravens defense and therefore has been announced as the starter at strong safety next to Ed Reed. However, expect a lot of Bernard Pollard in there as he is a beast of a hitter and the team wants to send a more physical message, if that is even possible with this defense.
Two new starting cornerbacks will be out there in rookie Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams. Fans have been clamoring for Wiliams to get more playing time since last year and in Training Camp this summer he proved it and earned the start. Jimmy Smith was expected to be a nickel back rather than throw him into the fire on opening day against the Steelers. However, Domonique Foxworth has looked horrible, Chris Carr is still not healthy and Lardarius Webb has been targeted and burned by opposing teams. That leaves the gifted and bigger corners like Williams and Smith to match up with tough, physical and fast receivers from the Steelers on Sunday.
Terrell Suggs will find a way to get to Roethlisberger. We know it and even Big Ben knows it. However, he will roll away from T-Sizzle and therefore one of the other Ravens pass rushers will need to step up, provide pressure and contain those time-stretching plays that have killed us in this rivalry. Expect monster games from Paul Kruger and hopefully Pernell McPhee and Sergio Kindle, albeit in limited roles compared to Kruger. Another pass rusher will make a huge difference in the amount of time Ben has to extend a play.
Lastly, do not underestimate the huge advantage that our kicking game has on virtually every other team in the NFL, including the Steelers. Placekicker Billy Cundiff and punter Sam Koch should be able to have us winning the field-position battle from the opening kickoff. Accuracy in field goal kicking plus punting placement could determine the final outcome as much as anything mentioned above.
These guys and positions will play a key role in the outcome of the ravens game. don't be surprised if one of our star are upstaged Sunday by one of these lesser-known players. however, after Sunday, when they do step up, they will no longer be lesser-known players to Ravens fans, much less the rest of the league.