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11-03-2011, 07:16 PM
Ravens-Steelers A rough tough star studed affair
Rivalry is filled with hatred, unpredictability, but big-name players' performances are consistent
updated 1:31 p.m. ET Nov. 3, 2011

Mike Tanier

There’s a good reason Sunday night’s Ravens-Steelers game is giving you a sense of familiarity. The two teams are meeting for the 10th time, counting the playoffs, in the past 38 months. They faced each other in September’s season opener, which was a rematch of January’s first-round playoff game, which was the grudge match that decided a regular-season split between the two teams, who also split in 2009, after the Steelers swept the Ravens in three games in 2008, one of them the AFC Championship Game.

That’s a lot of history crammed into just over three years.

Many of the principal players in Sunday night’s game grew up in this rivalry. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall were rookies in 2008 when John Harbaugh took over the Ravens and joined second-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in ushering new eras in both franchise’s histories. Mike Wallace joined the fray in 2009, Anquan Boldin as a free agent last season. In addition to the youngsters, many veterans have had career-defining moments in Steelers-Ravens games, including Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

With the NFC North typically hanging in the balance and shoo-in Hall of Famers battling up-and-comers, Steelers-Ravens games always give us plenty to talk about. A look back at their game-by-game statistics of some of the biggest stars can tell us something about what to expect on Sunday — whether Rice will run wild, Big Ben will come up even bigger, which safety is more likely to produce a pick-6, and so on.

This rivalry has a reputation for unpredictability — raise your hand if you had the Ravens winning the opener 35-7 — but it turns out that there are some things you can count on, starting with Big Ben himself.

Ben Roethlisberger
Last Three Years vs. Ravens (per game): 34 attempts, 19 completions (54.7 percent complete), 244 yards, 1.1 touchdowns, 0.9 interceptions.

Roethlisberger’s statistics against the Ravens are remarkably consistent from game to game. He has completed between 17 and 22 passes in every meeting since the September 2008 matchup, passing for between 246 and 280 yards in each of those games. He has thrown one touchdown in every game against the Ravens except last year’s playoff game, when he threw two. Roethlisberger’s interception rate went way up when he threw three interceptions against the Ravens in September. Before that, he threw just three picks in nine games. Big Ben has settled down interception-wise this year, so that three-pick effort is best thought of as a lockout-inflated anomaly. When Roethlisberger plays — he has missed two meetings with injuries and suspensions — you know what you will get.

Image: Ravens' quarterback Flacco throws a pass against the Steelers in the first half of their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Pittsburgh
Jason Cohn / Reuters

Joe Flacco
Career vs. Steelers (per game): 31 attempts, 17 completions (53.9 percent), 197 yards, 1.1 touchdowns, 0.9 interceptions

Two weak playoff games hold Flacco’s numbers down, but September’s three-touchdown effort gives them a boost. Just as Roethlisberger has warmed up since the opener, Flacco has cooled off, so numbers like the ones you see above are far more likely than the efficient 224 yards he put up in the opener. The raw numbers do not show the pounding Flacco has taken at the Steelers' hands: he has endured 29 sacks, and many more knockdowns, in nine games.

Rashard Mendenhall
Career vs. Ravens (per game): 18 carries, 53 yards, 0.7 touchdowns, 1.5 catches, 10 yards

These numbers show how excellent the Ravens' and Steelers' defenses usually are: they turn 1,000 yard backs into guys who struggle to get past 50 yards per game and make it hard for established quarterbacks to complete 50 percent of their passes. The three 2010 meetings typified Mendenhall’s battering-ram role in these games: he may go 19 for 45 or 20 for 26, but he scored two touchdowns each in two of the games and is the Steelers’ weapon of choice at the goal line.

Image: Ray Rice
Nick Wass / AP

Ray Rice
Career vs. Steelers (per game): 12 carriers, 59 yards, 0.25 TD, three catches, 28 yards

When Rice is on against the Steelers, he is on. He had 149 total yards and two touchdowns in September’s game and racked up 155 total yards in a 2009 game. At the same time, there are a lot of eight-carry, 20-yard efforts on Rice’s resume, and he is also usually neutralized as a receiver in those games.

Mike Wallace
Career vs. Ravens (per game): 4.2 catches, 62 yards

Wallace joined the party in 2009, and while he has not yet scored a touchdown against the Ravens,he has produced a few of his trademark long receptions, including a 45-yard catch in a 23-20 Steelers win in 2009. Some Ravens defenders consider Antonio Brown more dangerous than Wallace, perhaps remembering Brown’s 58-yard catch that changed the course of last year’s playoff game.

Anquan Boldin
Ravens Career vs. Steelers (per game): 4.25 catches, 64.5 yards, 0.5 touchdowns

Boldin caught 12 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown in two regular-season games against the Steelers last year, then had four catches for 74 yards and a touchdown in this season’s opener. As they always do against the Ravens, the Steelers had the last laugh in the playoffs, holding Boldin to one screen pass that lost two yards. In general, though, you can count on a few Flacco-to-Boldin hookups.

Image: Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens
Rob Carr / Getty Images

Troy Polamalu
Last Three Years vs. Ravens (total): one sack, one interception, two touchdowns.

Polamalu nailed the Ravens' coffin shut with a 40-yard interception return in the 2008 AFC Championship game. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown in 2008. Other than that, the big plays have been few and far between for Polamalu, in part because he is most dangerous when picking off passes underneath, while the Ravens prefer to attack deep.

Ed Reed
Last Three Years vs. Steelers (total): 1 sack, 2 interceptions

Reed also recovered a fumble in the 2010 playoff game. Both of Reed’s picks came in this season’s opener, and Reed has either missed or been severely limited in many Steelers games due to injuries. Reed and Polamalu will both go into the Hall of Fame, but they rarely have great games when facing each other’s offenses.

Ray Lewis
Last Three Years vs. Steelers (total): 80 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions

The Steelers still bring out the best in Lewis, though stat-heads recognize that high tackle totals are often a sign that the defender’s team lost. Sure enough, Lewis recorded 13 total tackles in a 13-10 loss last year, and the Ravens’ two playoff losses resulted in nine tackles each for Lewis. Take a look at Mendenhall’s stats, though, and you can see that Lewis is making many of those tackles close to the line of scrimmage, contributing to what (until September) was almost always a close, low-scoring slugfest.

Image: Ravens' quarterback Flacco is sacked by Harrison of the Steelers during the second half of their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Pittsburgh
Jason Cohn / Reuters

James Harrison
Last Three Years vs. Ravens: 5.5 sacks

Steelers defensive performances against the Ravens tend to be team efforts. Sacks, interceptions and big plays are often spread among multiple players. All of Harrison’s sacks came in two games: a 2.5-sack effort in 2008, and a three-sack performance in last year’s playoffs.

Harrison’s game-changing postseason performance makes his status for Sunday (he is practicing with a face guard after missing am month with an eye injury) so critical. As the numbers above show, much about this rivalry is predictable: 240 Roethlisberger yards, low completion rates, great run defense, and so on. The difference between a 23-20 Ravens win and a 23-20 Steelers win may come down to a sack or two. Or three. Harrison is the wild card who could provide the sacks that decide the course of the AFC North, if not the league.

Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.