Sunday’s 1:00 p.m. kickoff between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium has the makings of a blowout — at least on paper — but in this rivalry everything can be taken off the table.
Sure, the Steelers offense is rolling right now and is set to go up against a Ravens secondary that allows 255.5 yards-per-game through the air, but when it comes to these two teams matching up against one another it’s sure to be a dogfight.
However, Pittsburgh could ultimately blow out the Ravens late in the season, much like they did in 2014, 43-23, in Week 9. In that game Pittsburgh won key matchups across the board, leading to the 20-point win at home.
This week, they’ll look to do the same thing — this time on the road.
Here are two key matchups to watch between the Steelers and Ravens.
Antonio Brown vs. Jimmy Smith
Smith comes into this game a bit banged up with a sore thigh, but he’s expected to be a full go for Sunday.
Baltimore will certainly need him against Brown, who hauled in 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores just one week ago against Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., who is thought of as one of the best corners in football.
Brown is a great route runner who excels at finding soft spots in zone coverage, as well as working open against man coverage.
Although Smith (6’2”, 206) has the size advantage and the length against Brown (5’11”, 186), the Steelers No. 1 receiver is exceptionally hard to shut down one-on-one.
The Ravens will likely give the hobbled Smith some help over the top against Brown, but if the Ravens stand any chance of taking down the Steelers are their march to the playoffs, they’ll have to come up with a solution against the (arguably) best receiver in football.
Ross Cockrell/William Gay vs. Kamar Aiken
Due to injuries at the position, Aiken has been elevated to the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver.
The third-year Central Florida product hasn’t disappointed for Baltimore in the role as the top dog at receiver.
Through 15 weeks, Aiken has hauled in 62 receptions for 802 yards and five scores.
Last week against a very strong Kansas City secondary, Aiken had his way.
With Jimmy Clausen looking his way a game-high 12 times, Aiken was able to reign in eight of those 12 passes for 128 yards and one score, including an exceptional catch on a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half that pulled the Ravens within ten.
Aiken isn’t a burner, but he’s a strong route runner who knows how to find soft spots in coverage, sitting down in the spots to show his numbers to the quarterback.
Based off of the way Pittsburgh’s secondary has struggled to stop anyone through the air this season (31st pass defense) Aiken could be lined up for another big day against Pittsburgh.
Last time out against the Steelers Aiken hauled in five passes for 77 yards and a score, mainly against Antwon Blake.
He’ll likely draw the attention of Ross Cockrell and William Gay this week as Blake will see less and less snaps, as he’s gotten worse as the season has progressed.
Although he isn’t flashy, Cockrell has matched up well with receivers since the Steelers claimed him off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills prior to the start of the season.
The Duke product has plenty of length and athleticism to cover a guy like Aiken, but Gay appears to be the best matchup for the Baltimore receiver.
Gay is able to bait quarterbacks into bad throws and has really turned into Pittsburgh’s best cornerback over the last two years.
If the Steelers secondary — mainly Gay and Cockrell — can take away Aiken in the passing game, they should be able to shut down Clausen and the rest of the Ravens receiving corps.
Jeremy Butler, Chris Matthews and Chris Givens shouldn’t scare any secondary if Aiken is taken away.