Steelers (6-4) @ Ravens (5-5)
Thanks to Thanksgiving-related computerlessness, this preview got pushed back a day from it’s normal posting time. As a result, it will have a markedly different tone had it been put together on Friday, due to breaking news first reported by FOX’s Jay Glazer this morning that Baby Ben Roethlisberger will NOT play on Sunday night.
Due to the Steelers’ brass’ decision to not sign a veteran backup earlier this week (they probably figured Benny was pulling one of his typical “oh, ow, it hurts, but um, yeah not really, I’m OK” drama queen acts), the Ravens won’t be facing a Jeff Garcia (who would worry us, even in his first week in the system) or Cleo Lemon (who we all remember for beating the Ravens as a member of the then-winless 2007 Miami Dolphins), but instead second year player Dennis Dixon.
Dixon, a guy mentioned in the 2007 Heisman race during his time at Oregon, has thrown all of ONE pass in his NFL career, a 3 yard completion in mop-up duty last season. The Ravens’ suddenly rejuvenated defense should have no problem making life terrible for the young scambler, and the hostile crowd at M&T Bank Stadium should be able to rattle him early and often (that is, as long as they use their hands to actually MAKE NOISE and not wave the stupid towels that the Ravens are giving out for the game – Glenn Clark articulated the idiocy of this very well HERE).
Speaking of the defense, Greg Mattison’s group, much maligned early in the season, has slowly and quietly crept themselves back into the NFL’s top 10. They forced three turnovers against the Peyton Mannings last week to keep the game close, and are rounding into form nicely. The loss of starting cornerback Fabian Washington for the year to an ACL tear definitely hurts, but Lardarius Webb has shown flashes of brilliance, and will now need to step up and contribute on defense the way he has on special teams. The Ravens also promise that we will see more of (ugh) Frank Walker and Chris Carr in coverage, and they signed Cary Williams, another CB, off the Titans’ practice squad.
Ed Reed, the goat of last week due to his ill-advised and even worse executed pitch attempt, is nonetheless playing his best football of the season as we get into late November. On NFL Playbook on the NFL Network this week, Brian Billick had the honor of diagramming Reed’s interception of Manning, where he absolutely BAITED the best quarterback on the planet into throwing the ball exactly where #20 wanted him to. If you have a chance to catch it, or have it saved on your DVR, go back and be sure to watch the Colts-Ravens segment. Reed broke toward the left sideline, to Pierre Garcon’s side, then wheeled toward Reggie Wayne on the right sideline, turning his back to play completely, and lo and behold, there was the ball. Reed vs. Dennis Dixon isn’t even fair, honestly.
The Steelers’ big-play safety, Troy Polamalu, has been bitten this season by his decision to grace the cover of “Madden 10.” The dandruff-less Polamalu has missed five games already in 2009, and the Steelers are just 2-3 without him. Much to the delight of Cam Cameron and Joe Flacco, who won’t have to worry about accounting for #43 on every single snap, Polamalu will be forced to sit this one out, as well.
Even without Polamalu for half of their contests, Dick Lebeau’s boys have still managed to trot out the league’s #1 overall defense. For Cameron, who seemed scared to try any of his trickery that had worked so well against other teams on the Steelers last year, and whose unit has fallen from #3 to #13 over the past six games, Sunday night will be a chance for him to put some of the recent frustrations behind him. The Ravens should be able to score some points on Pittsburgh, not necessarily because their offense will dominate, but because there is likely to be good field position aplenty, due to 3-and-outs and turnovers delivered by Dixon.
Ray Rice, who has over 100 yards from scrimmage in seven consecutive games, has been the Ravens’ catalyst and basically only weapon on offense of late. Lebeau, however, is likely to have put together a game plan to stop (or at least contain) Rice, so SOMEBODY else needs to show up and produce. Flacco may find that his safety valves of Derrick Mason and Rice are shut off more often than not against Pittsburgh, and will have to be able to find his other options. Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington have combined for just four (!!) catches over the Ravens last three games (each had 1 each against Cincy and Indy, and got shut out in Cleveland). Make no mistake about it – the Steelers will not let Mason and Rice beat them single (double?) -handedly. If the other guys, including Todd Heap and Le’Ron McClain, can’t get involved, this one could be a nail biter even with Dennis Dixon leading the other side.
The Steelers’ prime downfall this season has been that they are giving up points not when that strong defense is on the field, but the rest of the time. Pittsburgh has given up a return touchdown (defensive or special teams) in their last eight games, an NFL record. Their kick coverage unit has been at the bottom of the league, and it’s so bad that they just signed Corey Freaking’ Ivy to help out. Unfortunately, he doesn’t figure to see much action in the secondary this week, but we can always cross our fingers and hope. Lardarius Webb should be able to contribute some good field position of his own on kickoffs, although hopefully there won’t be more than 2 or 3 kickoffs from Pittsburgh all night, and we all know Chris “Fair Catch” Carr isn’t breaking anything, so the Ravens’ best bet at making it nine straight games giving up a return score for Pittsburgh is likely to be someone on the defense.
Steelers’ running back Rashard Mendenhall is having a good year, and will be out for some revenge after Ray Lewis broke his shoulder last season. Haloti Ngata has been limited in practice this week (still with the ankle issue), and Terrell Suggs will, by all accounts, be inactive again. The Ravens’ best bet to neutralize Mendenhall is to get out to an early lead Sunday night, and force the young quarterback to try to beat them throwing. At that point, their pass rushers can pin their ears back, and the ball hawking secondary can have a nice post-Thanksgiving feast.
There are some that will say that, should the Ravens win, the victory will be hollow because of Benny Boy and Troy Toy being out. I’m going to disagree vehemently. If the Ravens were 8-2, yes, I’d be a little disappointed that those two won’t be out there. However, with this team 5-5, desperate for a win, and having seemingly found every way under the sun to lose games in 2009, we should be happy for a victory any way we can get it. Especially in a division game, against one of the handful of teams above us in the Wild Card hunt.
Not to mention, it’s the Steelers – if you dressed up Glen Burnie High School (‘s soccer team) in Pittsburgh jerseys and sicked the Ravens on them, I’d watch all day.
Ravens 23 Steelers 6