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Playoff Preview: Ravens’ Patchwork Line and Secondary in Trouble vs. Steelers

The NFL playoffs get underway Saturday afternoon with a 4:20 Eastern game pitting a team with a losing record versus one starting a third-stringer at quarterback. At 8:20 p.m., an AFC North trilogy takes place between the Steelers and Ravens. Let’s break down the action….

Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)

Starting a third-string quarterback in a road playoff game is far from ideal. But that is what the Arizona Cardinals have to do with their first and second-string quarterbacks out with knee injuries.

Ryan Lindley, a third-year player from San Diego State, gets the start for Arizona. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians doesn’t like people calling Lindley a “third-string quarterback.

“We don’t look at it as a team with a third-string quarterback, it’s our starting quarterback,” Arians said. “He’s a Cardinal, so we’d look for the same level of efficiency that we’d see if Carson or Drew were out there.”

Easier said than done.

Lindley was awful in his first start two weeks ago against Seattle, but most quarterbacks struggle against that defense. He was little better last week in a loss to San Francisco, throwing a pair of touchdowns. However, he also threw three interceptions.

And he’s going to have a ferocious pass rush coming after him, a Carolina Panthers front that sacked Atlanta’s Matt Ryan six times last week. The Panthers’ pass rush ended the season strong, with the emergence of rookie defensive end Kony Ealy, who had three sacks in his last three games. He was actually the better end prospect coming out of Missouri last year, but was overshadowed by Michael Sam.

The Panthers are the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record, winning the substandard NFC South win a 7-8-1 record. “I’m not concerned with our record because right now everyone is even,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

Last week, the Panthers destroyed the Atlanta Falcons to take the division. The Falcons didn’t show up and it cost coach Mike Smith his job. Led by Arians, the leading candidate for coach of the year, the Cardinals will show up. Arians is a top-shelf motivator and strategist.

Last week the Panthers lit up Atlanta’s 32nd-ranked defense. Panthers QB Cam Newton will have a much bigger challenge against a Cardinal defense, featuring one of the better cornerback combos in the league (Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie), and one of the NFL’s best run stopping units.

This game is a toss-up.

 

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

Joe Flacco better be prepared to get rid of the ball quickly.

His offensive line is in tatters entering this game. Both starting offensive tackles are out–left tackle Eugene Monroe (ankle) and right tackle Rick Wagner (foot). Undrafted rookie James Hurst will start for Monroe. The Ravens will move right guard Marshall Yanda to right tackle, and start rookie fifth round pick John Urschel at right guard.

Having a reconfigured offensive line and traveling to boisterous Heinz Field, where it’s hard to communicate, could be problematic for the Ravens. Expect the Steelers’ sage defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to send his coterie of talented pass rushers, led by outside linebackers James Harrison and Jason Worilds, from all different angles, to exploit this patchwork line.

Another big problem for the Ravens is their weak cornerback situation (aside from Ladarius Webb) due to a number of injuries. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is licking his chops. No quarterback threw for more yards than Roethlisberger this season. In the Steelers 43-23 win over the Ravens in early November, Roethlisberger dominated the Ravens secondary, throwing for 340 yards and six touchdowns.

The Ravens had issues covering the Steelers superstar receiver Antonio Brown (129 receptions in 2014) in both contests this season. Over the second half of the season, Clemson rookie Martavis Bryant, who has a great size-speed ratio, emerged, and finished the year with eight touchdowns.

Le’Veon Bell sits, to the delight of the Ravens, with a knee injury. Though Baltimore largely contained Bell in two meetings this season, the running back’s 1,361 yards constituted more than three-quarters of Pittsburgh’s progress on the ground. Rookie Josh Harris looks to fill Bell’s shoes but look for Pittsburgh to offset the loss more through the air than on the ground.

So, when you combine the Ravens’ offensive line issues with being short-handed at cornerback, expect the Steelers to win this game despite their backfield threat sitting on the sidelines.

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