AFC Championship Game preview: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers: 5 things to know

1 linebackers spark: The Steelers linebackers — James Harrison, Larry Foote, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior — are the most violent in football, ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said. Woodley is used a lot as a pass rusher and has four sacks in his playoff career. "Their linebackers are great tacklers, play with a lot of speed and are very good pass rushers," Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said.

2 Polamalu unpredictable: Troy Polamalu is the hardest Steelers defender to read. The Pro Bowl safety will line up in the "A" gap before the snap and can quickly get back into coverage by the time the pass is thrown. "I've never seen anyone else do that before," NFL Network analyst Rod Woodson said.

3 Don't forget DE Aaron Smith: "The three down linemen are highly underrated. I think Aaron Smith (right) is one of the better, most underrated players in the league. He's tough to block with one guy," Bratkowski said.

4 Harrison has a go-to move: James Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year, is a dangerous pass rusher. But CBS analyst Shannon Sharpe says he can be predictable: "Harrison, he's a short guy, and (offensive) tackles are 6-6, 6-5 — he gets so much leverage on them. He steps to the inside and rips to the outside, that's his patented move."

5 Don't block Woodley with a back: "The mistake people always make — (LaMarr) Woodley (right) was a true defensive end in college, and now all of a sudden people want to try to block him with a tight end or back. And you'll lose that battle 10 times out of 10," Sharpe said.

Ravens: 5 things to know

1 Their defense will confuse you: "The Ravens will take their 3-4 personnel and … align themselves in a 4-3 defense," Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "That changes a lot of your rules and responsibilities." Said ESPN's Merril Hoge: "They constantly change their personnel, not necessarily to down and distance. (Defensive coordinator) Rex Ryan (right) is amazing at giving up no tendencies — he doesn't have one. They play 3-4, but they're in an odd 3-4."

2 Reed tricks quarterback: CBS analyst Phil Simms compares S Ed Reed to a centerfielder, roaming the secondary with great instincts and trickery. He'll freelance and leave his spot to sprint across the field for a pick. "He does a great job of baiting quarterbacks into poor decisions and poor throws. He'll show them one thing and end up at another spot," Bratkowski said.

3 Suggs is the real key: LB Ray Lewis might be the heart and soul and Reed the biggest playmaker, but the effectiveness of LB Terrell Suggs could be huge. There are reports Suggs, who has a sprained shoulder, might just get the most snaps on third down.

4 Flacco's cannon: CBS analyst Dan Marino was impressed with how rookie QB Joe Flacco can beat a team with the deep ball and how his arm strength can catch opposing corners by surprise.

5 Don't forget Leonhard: The most underrated Raven might be Jim Leonhard, right, a 5-foot-8 safety who took over for injured starter Dawan Landry in the third week of the season. In the two playoff games, Leonhard has 12 tackles, a forced fumble, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.

X-factor

Steelers RB Willie Parker

For most of the season, the Steelers had trouble running the ball and pass protecting. But with Parker back to full strength — rushing for 146 yards and two TDs against the Chargers last week — ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said that Parker's speed gives Pittsburgh a chance to move the ball against the Ravens' touted defense. Although Baltimore has contained Parker in his career (2.8 yards per carry in six games), the two-time Pro Bowl back is "completely different" than earlier in the season, Hoge said. "The way he can run now, he's so laterally quick, he puts an enormous burden on the defense on the perimeter. He's one of those rare backs who can turn his shoulders; he can run to the sideline with the defensive back in good position and still get yards."

How to attack the league's best two defenses

Stick with the run: The Steelers and Ravens boast two of the league's top run defenses, but don't give up on it early. "Don't get discouraged when you pick up 2 (yards) here, 3 (yards) there. If you get third and 4, you have to consider that a good situation. You don't want to get yourself in obvious pass situations (because) they all have great blitz packages," Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said.

Protection, protection: Ravens QB Joe Flacco was sacked seven times in two games against Pittsburgh. And Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 20 times in his team's four losses. "Don't let your quarterback get hit, keep him confident, because that's when he makes great throws. If he fears getting hit, you'll find a quarterback who doesn't make good decisions," CBS analyst Phil Simms said.

Spread them out: Because both defenses try to disguise who's blitzing, spread them out to call their bluff. "If you can spread them out so you can recognize the blitzes, now you see where they're coming from," the Redskins' Smith said. "They can't overload to one side. Once you recognize, you have to win the one-on-one battle in pass protect."

Go after defensive backs: If each defense has a weak link, it's the cornerbacks. The Steelers have more physical ones, but they can get beaten deep. "If you're going to attack the Steelers, you must protect and then go over the top," ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said. "They have too much activity underneath and uncertainty with some guys dropping out; if you try to win by short to intermediate passing game, you're going to make too many mistakes."

Player's prediction

Redskins veteran OT Jon Jansen, who played against all four remaining teams this season, says: "It's going to be which quarterback makes the mistake and costs the team the game. I'd go with experience and Pittsburgh. They've been there. They play great team defense, and I think they'll come out with it."

Steelers 20, Ravens 14

Stephen F. Holder's prediction

Steelers 21, Ravens 13

Carries

210

Yards

791

Average

3.8

TDS

5

AFC Championship Game preview: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 8:30pm]

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