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Steelers, Ravens ready to lock horns in Week 1 grudge match

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens will waste no to-toe Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2011 season opener for both teams.

These two 2010 playoff participants have engaged in some classic contests in recent years, as each of the last six regular-season bouts between the clubs have been decided by four points or less. In addition, three of the past eight matchups in the series held in Baltimore have gone into overtime.

Both of last year's regular-season skirmishes featured thrilling finishes as well. The Ravens rallied for a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh on a Joe Flacco touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds remaining in regulation, with the Steelers returning the favor via a 13-10 decision at M&T Bank Stadium in December in which Pittsburgh scored a late touchdown that was set up by game-changing safety Troy Polamalu's sack of Flacco that forced a fumble deep in Baltimore territory.

That victory helped the Steelers edge the Ravens for the AFC North title on a tiebreaker after each team finished with identical 12-4 marks, with Pittsburgh getting the nod by virtue of a better record within the division.

The Steelers also got the better of Baltimore in last January's AFC Divisional Playoffs, once again in come-from-behind fashion. Down by 14 points at the half, the Black and Gold outscored the Ravens by a 24-3 margin over the final two quarters to pull out a 31-24 verdict on the way to an eventual appearance in Super Bowl XLV.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sparked the comeback by throwing a pair of touchdown passes in the third quarter as the Steelers' standout continued to be a thorn in the Ravens' side. The win improved him to 9-2 all-time against Baltimore over his seven-year career, and Pittsburgh has defeated the Ravens seven straight times when Roethlisberger has started.

Roethlisberger did not participate in the Steelers' home loss to Baltimore earlier in the season while serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

He and his Pittsburgh mates will be going up against a Ravens' squad that will have a much different look than the 2010 edition, with the team bringing in several new players during the offseason while releasing such core veterans as wide receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, running back Willis McGahee and nose tackle Kelly Gregg.

Mason's departure was offset by last month's trade with Buffalo for dangerous wideout Lee Evans, while five-time 1,000-yard rusher Ricky Williams was signed to take over McGahee's old role as a complement to young playmaker Ray Rice. The Ravens also signed offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, released by Minnesota at the start of training camp after reporting overweight, during the preseason to add a proven protector for Flacco's blind side.

Sunday's grudge match will also two of the league's elite defenses from a year ago. Pittsburgh yielded the fewest points and rushing yards during the regular season, while Baltimore ranked third and fifth, respectively, in those categories.

SERIES HISTORY

Last December's win at M&T Bank Stadium gave the Steelers an 18-12 lead in their overall regular-season series with the Ravens, though Pittsburgh has left with a loss in six of its last eight trips to Baltimore. The teams have split their two traditional head-to-head regular-season meetings in each of the past two seasons, with the Ravens coming through with the above-mentioned 17-14 triumph at Heinz Field during Week 4 of last year.

Pittsburgh moved to 3-0 against Baltimore in postseason play with last season's win in the Divisional Round. In addition to a 23-14 home verdict for the Steelers in the 2008 AFC Championship, the Black and Gold also earned a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field.

Including the playoffs, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh is 2-6 all-time against the Steelers, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin owns a 7-3 record versus the Ravens and is 6-2 in head-to-head encounters with Harbaugh.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

While Pittsburgh has been traditionally classified as a grind-it-out, run- oriented team on offense, it's been far more diverse in its approach as of late. That was especially the case during the second half of last season, with Roethlisberger (3200 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT) averaging over 285 passing yards over the final eight weeks. The strong-armed signal-caller also enters Sunday's tilt on a career-best streak of 158 consecutive attempts without an interception in regular-season play. Roethlisberger will have his share of quality targets to choose from as well, with third-year burner Mike Wallace (60 receptions, 1257 yards, 10 TD) averaging a whopping 21 yards per catch during a breakout sophomore campaign, the venerable Hines Ward (59 receptions, 5 TD) still a consistent chain-mover at age 35, and promising youngsters Emmanuel Sanders (28 receptions, 2 TD) and Antonio Bryant (16 receptions) coming on strong late as rookies in 2010. The Steelers can still run the ball with authority, though, with workhorse back Rashard Mendenhall (1273 rushing yards, 13 TD, 23 receptions) adept at wearing down enemy defenses with his power-based style. The biggest question marks lie on the offensive line, though the return of right tackle Willie Colon from a torn Achilles tendon that cost him all of last year should help stabilize the situation.

The Ravens continued their tradition of tough, hard-hitting defense by surrendering a scant 16.9 points and 93.9 rushing yards per game in 2010. Once again, Baltimore's formidable group will be headlined by two all-time greats in inside linebacker Ray Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and free safety Ed Reed (37 tackles, 16 PD), a duo which has earned a combined 19 Pro Bowl citations between them, while energetic outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 11 sacks) brings a disruptive pass rush from the edge. Reed is one of the game's premier big-play artists and led the NFL with eight interceptions last year despite missing the first six games with a hip injury, but he's the only recognizable name in a secondary that went an extensive offseason makeover. The starting cornerbacks for Sunday's clash will be talented rookie Jimmy Smith, Baltimore's first-round selection in April's draft, and athletic but lightly-seasoned fourth-year pro Cary Williams, while former reserve Tom Zbikowski (17 tackles) and free-agent pickup Bernard Pollard (111 tackles, 2.5 sacks with Texans) will rotate opposite Reed after strong safety Dawan Landry signed with Jacksonville over the summer. Along with three-time All-Pro lineman Haloti Ngata (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks), Gregg was one of the keys to Baltimore's stout run defense, but the team is confident massive second-year tackle Terrence Cody (13 tackles) can be a more than adequate replacement.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

With Baltimore likely to find rough sledding running the ball against the Steelers' sturdy front seven, the onus will be on Flacco (3622 passing yards, 25 TD, 10 INT) to come up aces on Sunday. Fortunately for the Ravens, the even- keeled 26-year-old usually does his best work at home, sporting a career 19-5 record at M&T Bank Stadium and amassing a stellar 13-to-2 touchdown-to- interception ratio at the facility last season. He'll miss the trusted safety valve that Heap provided over the years, but the offense should benefit from Evans' (37 receptions, 4 TD with Bills) established ability to stretch the field, a dimension the Ravens have been deprived of in recent years. The veteran wideout's presence figures to create more space for both Rice (1220 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 6 TD), one of the league's better receiving backs, and physical flanker Anquan Boldin (64 receptions, 7 TD) and give the Ravens a more varied attack. Baltimore will be without projected No. 3 receiver David Reed, who'll be serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, meaning raw rookies Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss will be counted on to contribute off the bat. McKinnie's addition to the left tackle post allows Harbaugh to move 2009 first-round choice Michael Oher back to the right side, where he excelled as a rookie, and kick scrapper Marshal Yanda to his more natural position at right guard after playing tackle last year.

The Steelers were the toughest team in the league to both score upon and run on during last year's run to the Super Bowl, permitting just 14.5 points and a paltry 62.8 rushing yards per game in the regular season. With all 11 starters back in place and valued end Aaron Smith (15 tackles) back from a triceps tear that limited him to six games in 2010, age is the only question regarding the Pittsburgh defense, as all but three of the regulars are over 30. The Steelers still possess last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the rangy Polamalu (63 tackles, 1 sack, 7 INT), as well as the league's best four-man linebacking corps that's headed up by the terrific outside pass-rushing tandem of James Harrison (100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (50 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT). Their knack for pressuring quarterbacks was a big reason why Pittsburgh also topped the NFL with 48 sacks last year, while the excellent inside combo of Lawrence Timmons (135 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and 15th-year pro James Farrior (109 tackles, 6 sacks) team up with five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton (20 tackles, 1 sack) to consistently shut down the run.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Safety first. Polamalu and Reed are the game's premier playmaking safeties that possess the rare ability to single-handedly change the outcome with their skills. The Steelers are 25-3 all-time when Polamalu has come up with an interception over his brilliant career, including a 6-0 mark last season, while the Ravens had a plus-11 turnover ratio in the 10 regular-season tests that Reed was in uniform for in 2010.

Protect the passer. Since there's a good chance that both teams will encounter trouble proficiently running the ball, it's critical for the two offensive lines to give its quarterback sufficient time to survey the field and attack the openings that will be present in the opposing secondary. Remember that the signature play of last year's matchup in Baltimore was when Polamalu came untouched on a blitz and blind-sided Flacco with a bone-jarring hit that caused a tide-turning fumble.

Come together quickly. The Ravens could be at a disadvantage because of their sizeable roster turnover, and the shortened practice window created by the lockout has made it more of a challenge for Harbaugh and his staff to get the newcomers acclimated and fully prepared. Baltimore's going to need more than the energy the home crowd will supply to knock off the experienced and battle- tested Steelers, so it's important that both units can gel as soon as possible.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

This series has become synonymous with intense, low-scoring affairs that usually come down to the wire, and with two stingy defenses both on display, there's little reason to believe that won't again be the case on Sunday. Roethlisberger has often been the difference in those games, and the standout quarterback's outstanding preseason performance suggests he may already be in midseason form. That may spell trouble for the Ravens if that's the case, especially if they've yet to fully peak after blending in a number of new faces and asking several youngsters to take on significant roles. Baltimore certainly won't lack the effort, but Pittsburgh's continuity and its knack for coming up with the big play gives the defending AFC champs an ever-so-slight edge.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 16, Ravens 13