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Ravens vs. Steelers key matchups: Offensive tackles face the biggest challenge

This divisional bout features key battles between specific players, units, and coaches.

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens will continue their road stint in Week 5, where they’ll face off with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon. They are road favorites against their longtime arch-AFC North division rival, who are coming off an embarrassing defeat to the Houston Texans in Week 4. However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds.

There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and players and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this Week 5 contest.

Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors.

Ravens’ offensive tackles vs. Steelers’ outside linebackers

For the second week in a row, one of the top priorities for the offense will be limiting the impact of one of the best edge-rushing duos in the entire league. Last week it was Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith; this week it will be five-time Pro Bowler T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. The two of them have combined for seven sacks through the first four games with Watt leading the team with a whopping six by himself.

Good news for the Ravens on the injury front couldn’t have come at a better time as it pertains to their two starting offensive tackles. Both Morgan Moses and Ronnie Stanley could be back in action on Sunday. Moses missed the second half of the team’s Week 4 win over the Cleveland Browns with a shoulder injury but returned to practice as a limited participant on Thursday. Stanley has missed the team’s last three games with a knee sprain but has been a full participant in the first two practices of the week. He told reporters on Thursday that “there’s a strong possibility” that he plays on Sunday.

If only Stanley can go, the daunting task of slowing down Watt off the right side will fall to either do-it-all utility lineman Patrick Mekari or second-year pro Daniel Faalele. Mekari has been filling in at left tackle but can play every position and has 32 career starts under his belt. Faalele has just one career start and it came at left tackle in Week 4 as a rookie. If neither established starter plays, Mekari would make his fourth straight start on the left side while Faalele would make his first career start on the right side. That is his natural position and where he played the entire second half after Moses went down this past week.

“I think Daniel did pretty well,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Daniel – [I] talked with him on the plane last night – he’s pretty not happy with two plays. You appreciate that as a coach. You want to see the guys not happy with the plays that they can do better. Yet, you go back, and you watch the tape, and I thought he played well. They keep chasing the perfection. The more he plays, the better he’s going to get. I thought he did a nice job.”

Ravens’ wide receivers vs. Steelers’ cornerbacks

Pittsburgh’s pass defense has given up the seventh-most passing yards (1,018) and the fourth-most touchdowns (eight) through the air in the first four games of the season. Baltimore’s wideouts appear to be getting healthier at the right time heading into this favorable matchup against a struggling secondary. The Steelers are tied for the most yards given up per completion in the league at 12.7.

The Steelers’ struggling group consists of veterans Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson as the starters, who have each given up three or more touchdowns in coverage. Their primary backups are fourth-year pro James Pierre and second-round rookie Joey Porter Jr. As long as the offensive line can provide Lamar Jackson enough time to pick them apart, expect big days from standout first-round rookie Zay Flowers, third-year pro Rashod Bateman, and veterans Nelson Agholor and Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham Jr. is questionable to make his return to the lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury.

QB Lamar Jackson vs. DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

The Ravens’ star signal caller and the Steelers’ ball-hawking free safety will be dueling it out all game long. Whether it is when Jackson attempts the air the ball out deep down the field and attack the seams or carries the ball on designed runs and scrambles, Fitzpatrick will be the last line of defense. He will be trying his best to limit big plays through the air or on the ground.

Pittsburgh is the only team in the AFC North that Jackson doesn’t have a winning record against at 2-3, but he’s missed each of the last three due to injury. He’ll have a chance to get to .500 against the Ravens’ long-time rivals in the division on Sunday but Fitzpatrick— who has made some plays and had big games in this rivalry — will be aiming to keep that from happening on his watch.

Jackson has been surgical and very decisive as a passer, both from the pocket as well as on the move, to start the season. He’s been the catalyst of success for the best red zone offense in the league. Fitzpatrick’s elite range will be tested in this game, especially if his compatriots in the secondary at corner continue to struggle to hold up in coverage.

Ravens’ pass rush vs. Steelers’ offensive line

Unlike Pittsburgh, who has more than half of their sack total of 13 coming from just two players in Watt and Highsmith, Baltimore has second-most sacks in the league with 15 and doesn’t have a single player with more than three. Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald does an excellent job scheming up pressures to set up players from all three levels for success as pass rushers. That can be as a result of corner and delayed blitzes from depth, double A-gap pressure, or with twist and stunts.

Even though the Steelers appeared to have avoided disaster with what initially looked like a serious injury to starting quarterback Kenny Pickett in Week 4, their offensive line is banged up. They will be without starting left tackle Dan Moore, who was ruled out with a knee injury. In his place, First-round rookie Broderick Jones will be making his first career start. They’ll also be without starting right guard James Daniels, who was ruled out with a groin injury.

A banged-up quarterback and behind an even more banged-up offensive line could spell doom for the Steelers against an aggressive, relentless Ravens’ defense. This just might be the week that the sack floodgates finally break for three-time Pro Bowl edge defender Jadeveon Clowney.

Ravens’ rushing attack vs. Steelers’ run defense

As susceptible as Pittsburgh has been to opposing aerial assaults on the defensive side of the ball, they’ve struggled even more when it comes to preventing opposing offenses from gashing them on the ground. The Steelers have given up the fourth-most rushing yards (594) and yards per attempt (4.7) in the league and are allowing an average of 148.5 rushing yards per game.

While rankings can usually go out the window when it comes to divisional matchups, glaring weaknesses don’t just get fixed overnight — or not even with a full week’s worth of practice. A struggling defensive unit is going up against an opposing offensive unit that is operating at a high level in this aspect of the game. The Steelers’ elite pass rush won’t mean much if the Ravens can just keep the ball on the ground and grind out third straight AFC North road win.

The Ravens have racked up the fourth-most rushing yards in the league through four games with 605 and a healthy average of 151.3 (fourth-most). They’ve eclipsed 170 yards on the ground in two of their last three games. This could be a big week for veteran running backs Gus Edwards and Justice Hill and there’s a good chance that one of them rushes for over 100 yards alone.

Ravens’ cornerbacks vs. WR George Pickens

With Pro Bowl wideout Diontae Johnson still on injured reserve and starting standout tight end Pat Freiermuth ruled out due to a hamstring injury, the onus of being Pickett’s top pass-catching option again will be on Pickens. He currently leads the Steelers in targets (30) and receiving yards (263) and is second in receptions (16). He’ll be going up against a Ravens’ secondary that might be at full strength at both safety and cornerback for the first time this season.

Three-time Pro Bowl corner Marlon Humphrey could be making his regular season debut after missing the first four games while he recovered from foot surgery. However, in his absence, third-year pro Brandon Stephens has emerged as another lockdown outside corner. No matter who winds up lining across from Pickens on Sunday, he’ll have his hands full trying to separate and make contested catches against these two aggressive press-man corners.