When it comes to defending the 2014 Steelers, teams have had to pick their poison.
Le'Veon Bell has been near impossible to slow down, rushing for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns. Antonio Brown emerged into a top-flight NFL wide receiver, catching 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. No other team has placed a running back and receiver in the top five of their respective categories. The Steelers have done this in the top two of both categories, with Brown leading all receivers and Bell checking in behind Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (1,845 yards, 13 touchdowns).
After a great Week 2 game, with the Ravens holding Bell to 59 yards and Brown to 90, the Steelers took to the air, with Brown going for 144 yards and a score in the Week 9 rematch. Bell, however, was held to just 20 yards on 10 carries.
Whatever didn't work in the passing game in Week 2 was corrected in Week 9. Of course, the Ravens had lost cornerback Jimmy Smith at this point, which began a long spiral of secondary woes for the organization.
The Ravens will always look to take away an opposing team's running game, first and foremost. The stats back it up, with the Ravens limiting teams to 88.2 yards per game on the ground. This mark ranks fourth in the NFL against the run. There hasn't been one running back that's gotten loose on the Ravens this year. Quarterbacks and receivers, well, that's a different story.
Point is, against the Steelers this Wild Card Weekend, the Ravens will need to come up with a plan to counter Pittsburgh's balance with defensive balance of their own. If the Ravens go all out to stop the rushing attack, be prepared for the Steelers to put the ball in Ben Roethlisberger's hands. From there, he has a slew of receivers, including Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and tight end Heath Miller.
In addition, Bell has actually been Pittsburgh's No. 2 pass-catching option too, recording 83 catches for 854 receiving yards and three touchdowns. However, Bell hyperextended his knee against Cincinnati last week and could miss Saturday's game as a result. If so, the Steelers would be forced to turn to rookie runner Josh Harris and signed-off-the-street-this-week back Ben Tate.
The Ravens will likely be confident — whether it's Bell or not — in stopping the run with its defensive line pressure. Haloti Ngata returns from a four-game suspension and will aid Brandon Williams and Chris Canty (expected to be back this week) by occupying blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays and prevent gains. The outside linebackers — Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil — will look to continue their production as pass-rushers, to hopefully slow down the passing attack, which has been deadly against most opponents this year.. Roethlisberger threw for 4,952 yards (a career-best in a single season), 32 touchdowns (tied his career-best) and nine interceptions (the fewest he's thrown while playing a full 16-game season). He spared no one in perhaps his best season as an NFL quarterback.
However, if there's a team that can come up with a way to disrupt what Pittsburgh wants to do on offense, it's the Ravens. Coach John Harbaugh and his staff are extremely familiar with the Steelers and have had plenty of battles with them on the playing field. Granted it was in Week 2, but the Ravens are the only team to hold the Steelers to single digits in a game in their 26-6 win. They did so by preventing big plays in the passing game and keeping Bell's gains at a minimum.
That last sentence is so much easier said than done. You're talking about professional athletes on playoff teams. But that's the bottom line in how Baltimore wins this game. Regardless of who's running the ball, Baltimore should be able to limit Pittsburgh's running game. But it's getting that added piece to the balance equation. To be in business Saturday night, the Ravens have to find a way to make things difficult on Big Ben.