The Ravens 2010 season will be on the line Saturday, the offensive line.
There are several keys for heading into the AFC divisional playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, but none more critical than the Ravens protecting quarterback Joe Flacco.
They have to keep him upright. If not, they can't win.
It's as obvious as the many cosmetic surgeries done on Joan Rivers' face. Few teams run on the Steelers, and when they do, it's just to keep them honest and force them to provide some resistance.
The Ravens may choose to get into a slugfest with the Steelers, but the best way to beat them is to throw the football. You beat Pittsburgh the same way you beat Baltimore.
You spread them out with three- and four-receiver sets. You force them to play more nickel and dime coverage than they're accustomed to. You challenge cornerback Ike Taylor and beat fellow cornerback Bryant McFadden like an old, worn out drum.
Again and again….
But there is one problem.
It's hard as hell to block the Steelers. They've got 48 sacks this season. It's even harder for the Ravens, who have allowed 44 sacks, including four last week in an AFC wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
"They play about 12 guys, but they have great chemistry and their pass rush is well-orchestrated," said Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. "They have a lot of talent, especially on the edge, and that's primarily where the pressure comes from."
The edge guys are outside linebacker James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. For the past three seasons, they have terrorized the Ravens. So much, in fact, that after the Ravens lost in the AFC championship game to Pittsburgh two years ago, general manager Ozzie Newsome made it a priority to find players who could block Woodley and Harrison.
Enter Ravens offensive tackles Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda.
They played well against the Steelers in the first game this season, but struggled some in the second because Pittsburgh added some new blitz packages.
It's hard to predict what Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will do Saturday.
"You kind of know their game; you understand the way they rush the passer. They both have an array of pass-rush moves, but they start with power," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh of Woodley and Harrison. "When you start with power and explosiveness, they both have a tremendous take-off, they time up the snap — those kinds of things. That makes it tough on tackles as far as the pass rush. They both can play the run very well. They're both very strong, heavy-handed guys."
"But, there's always something different," Harbaugh said. "They put them in some different spot; they bring them in from some different place every single game. We'll have to see what the plan is this week."
It will be an interesting chess match. A week ago, Cameron appeared to open up the offense against Kansas City, especially with tight end Todd Heap.
But that probably won't happen again Saturday. LeBeau won't be as dumb as Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who seldom changed from cover-1. LeBeau will present the Ravens with many different looks.
Also, because Woodley and Harrison can be so dominant, Heap and running back Ray Rice will have to stay in more often to chip block with Oher and Yanda off the edges.
In the past, there have been times the Ravens have had to go to maximum protection, and send out two receivers.
"You can't stay in max protection all the time," Cameron said. "You have to continue to mix things up and make sure they don't know who are your protectors and who are your receivers."
"Sometimes, they're going to get you," Cameron said. "That's just the way it is, the way things happen. When they do, the key is to minimize the damages and get to the next down. You can't let them take the ball away. As far as forcing turnovers, the Steelers and the Ravens are the two best defenses in the history of the NFL in that regard."
And then there is the Troy Polamalu factor. The Steelers Pro Bowl safety might line up here, or there or just about anywhere. He has to be on the offensive line or Flacco's radar full-time.
If not, well, we all know what happened last time.
"He is one of those players, like Ed Reed or Ray Lewis, that can line up in a run stopping run posture, but can recognize tendencies and formations so quickly that he can get back into pass coverage, and still make a play," Cameron said. "He is so quick, so fast, that you have to find a way to defend him."
No one knows the Ravens plan of attack. But two of the teams that beat the Steelers soundly this season, New England and New Orleans, came out with spread formations and threw the football. For the Patriots, that opened up the running game.
The Ravens certainly have some mismatches that work in their favor. Taylor and McFadden can't handle receivers Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh one on one. The Steelers like to put linebacker Lawrence Timmons in coverage against a tight end or running back, but he can't keep up with Rice or Heap.
It really comes down to the offensive line. Can Oher and Yanda handle their guys one on one? Can center Matt Birk's knees hold up for another week.
"They've answered the challenge every week. I have confidence they will this time as well," Cameron said.
Listen to Mike Preston on "The Bruce Cunningham Show" from noon to 2 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays on 105.7 FM.