Here are some of the key matchups to keep an eye on in the latest installment of this great AFC North rivalry.
T.J. Watt vs. Patrick Mekari
Following a four-sack performance in Week 17, outside linebacker T.J. Watt will be gunning for the single-season sack record on Sunday against a porous offensive line. Watt’s league-leading 21.5 sacks leave him 1.5 short of breaking the official single-season record set by Michael Strahan with the New York Giants in the 2001 season.
Watt primarily lines up across from right tackles, which means that unless the Steelers mix things up this week, Patrick Mekari will have the unfortunate duty of facing the All-Pro on a mission. The versatile lineman has been a solid stand-in at the right tackle position this season for the Ravens and was rewarded with a new three-year contract worth up to $15.4 million. Mekari has battled through injuries, though, and had a difficult time with Von Miller of the Los Angeles Rams last week.
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman will have to provide Mekari the necessary help needed against one of the NFL’s game-breaking edge rushers — something he alluded to this past week.
Greg Roman on T.J. Watt approaching the sack record: “We’re definitely going to pay some special attention to him.”— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) January 6, 2022
Ravens’ cornerbacks vs. Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool
Baltimore’s struggle to stay healthy at the cornerback position has been one of the many downfalls of their once-promising season. With Anthony Averett already declared out for Sunday, the Ravens will yet again be undermanned at the most important position on defense.
Baltimore’s secondary — with Marlon Humphrey and Averett still in the lineup — allowed Pittsburgh wide receiver Diontae Johnson to have his best game of the season in their previous meeting. Johnson caught eight passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens in Week 13. Alongside Johnson at wide receiver for the Steelers is Chase Claypool. The 6-foot-4 receiver is a dangerous downfield threat and contested-catch weapon. The pair has combined for a total of 1,933 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns this season.
Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith — fresh off his best game of the season in which he played 100% of the defensive snaps — will likely be relied upon heavily in what could be the last game of his career alongside Tavon Young, Kevon Seymour, Chris Westry, and Robert Jackson.
Baltimore’s No. 5 rushing attack vs. Pittsburgh’s No. 31 run defense
While it has not been the usual dominant force that the Ravens have experienced since quarterback Lamar Jackson took over during the 2018 season, Baltimore still deploys one of the league’s better rushing attacks statistically — averaging 139.4 yards per game on the ground. Veteran running back DeVonta Freeman is coming off his second-best game of the season in which he rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have struggled against the run this season — allowing an average of 139.6 rushing yards per game and a total of 2,234 on the season, both of which rank 31st in the NFL. The Ravens will be without Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard and blocking tight end Nick Boyle on Sunday, but with Tyler Huntley in place of Jackson, Roman will likely try to lean on the run game to try and grind out a win.
Najee Harris vs. NFL’s best run defense
On the flip side, Baltimore currently has the top-ranked rushing defense in the NFL — allowing just 84.8 rushing yards per game. Rookie first-round running back Najee Harris has been a focal point of Pittsburgh’s offense in his first season and is coming off a dominant performance in which he racked up 188 yards and a touchdown on the ground on 28 attempts against the Cleveland Browns.
Veteran defensive tackle Brandon Williams is another longtime Ravens who could be playing his final game with the team this Sunday. The 32-year-old run-stuffer will want to leave his mark by limiting what the Steelers can accomplish on the ground.