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Predicting three stars for Ravens vs. Steelers

Predicting three stars for Ravens vs. Steelers
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell breaks into open space against the Ravens in the second quarter of their Week 2 meeting at M&T Bank Stadium. (Evan Habeeb / USA Today Sports)

Some sportswriters name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to try and complete a season sweep over the Steelers.

1. Running back Le'Veon Bell

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Second only to Dallas running back DeMarco Murray in all-purpose yards this season (1,086 in eight games), Bell is the all-downs back every team in the NFL covets. He's been over 100 total yards in each of Pittsburgh's eight games this year, with one of his lowest outputs of the season coming against the Ravens in Week 2 (107 yards).

The Ravens boast the league's seventh-best run defense (90.4 yards per game allowed), and linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith have done well to stop passes out of the backfield, having allowed just over five yards per reception to running backs this year.

But with the Ravens pass defense as challenged as it could be without cornerback Jimmy Smith, the focus will be on stopping the Steelers' surging pass offense, and the front-seven could be tasked with stopping the run without much safety help. If linebackers are dropping into coverage and there aren't enough eyes on Bell, he could slip out of the backfield for a few big gains in either the run or pass game.

Bell's rush average probably will be buoyed by a couple big plays Sunday. He'll probably have more plays end badly than with big gains, but around 140 all-purpose yards and a touchdown seems like a safe bet for the second-year running back Sunday night.

2. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant

Don't bother checking the box score from Week 2 to see what Bryant did in his first meeting with the Ravens. The 2014 fourth-round pick was inactive for the first six games of the season with a shoulder injury, but has emerged in two games as a legitimate threat beside star wide receiver Antonio Brown. In two games, Bryant has seven catches on 12 targets for 123 yards and three touchdowns, with a long catch of 52 yards.

At 6 feet 4, 211 pounds, Bryant is a quick, physical monster who will be a tough cover for whomever the Ravens throw at him. In Week 2, Jimmy Smith shut down Brown and the rest of the Ravens secondary was left to worry about the others. Now, Lardarius Webb will likely get Brown and some combination of Dominique Franks, Chykie Brown, and Matt Elam will cover Bryant, a new threat they haven't seen before and will be hard pressed to replicate in practice. Bryant will be especially effective from the slot in three-wide sets, when Elam might be forced into coverage in the slot.

Bryant feasted on backup cornerback Darius Butler last week against Indianapolis, and he'll likely get another undersized, overmatched defender this week against the Ravens. Bryant's fourth touchdown of the season and first career 100-yard game are both realistic for the impressive rookie.

3. Wide receiver Torrey Smith

For all the hand wringing about how the Ravens will cover the Steelers' receivers, there's similar concern on the banks of the Three Rivers about what the Ravens' passing attack could do to the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers have had the pleasure of facing such quarterbacking luminaries as Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacksonville' Blake Bortles, Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon, and Cleveland's Brian Hoyer before Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts shredded them for 400 yards last week.

A handful of teams, including Hoyer's Browns in their second meeting and Joe Flacco in their first meeting this year, threw well but didn't have to with the game comfortably in hand. I think Flacco will have a good game, and Torrey Smith could be the key beneficiary of that. With cornerback Ike Taylor ruled out again, Cortez Allen, who was dropped from the starting lineup in favor of veteran Brice McCain recently, will be forced back into action. Allen, McCain, and William Gay could struggle to cover Smith over the top.

Smith has had his big moments against the Steelers before — his game-winning touchdown catch in 2011 being the first and best that comes to mind — but with defenses keying on Steve Smith underneath and the possibility of tight end Owen Daniels returning, there's going to be a lot of focus on the short passing routes. That will leave Torrey Smith available to hit a few big passes over the top in what very well could be a track meet. He'll erase memories of last week's catchless performance with a team-leading six receptions for over 100 yards and a touchdown.

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