Ravens (2-1) @ Steelers (3-0)
Some people get all pumped up at the prospect of another hard-hitting, close-fought, drag out brawl between these two hated division rivals. These people bask in the mutual hatred shared by the two fanbases, drinking in every last ounce of disdain as kickoff approaches.
Usually, I’m one of those people. For some reason this time feels a little different, though.
I can sense a few reasons for this.
One, two of the marquee guys on the teams won’t be participating Sunday, as the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger, and the Ravens without Ed Reed.
Second, it’s still very early in the season, so the stakes don’t seem quite as high as normal.
Mostly though, it probably has something to do with the classic psychological evaluation of people that states that we are more upset by negative outcomes than we are made joyous by positive ones. That is, if you lost $1000, you’d be more angry/sad than you would be happy if you found that same $1000.
That’s how Ravens/Steelers feels this week. The prospect of losing to Pittsburgh (again…Harbaugh/Flacco are a dismal 1-4 so far against them) is more vomit-inducing to me than a win over them is exciting. This is in no small part due, I’m sure, to the fact that the Steelers are playing with house money at this point. Even the most optimistic Steeler fan would have told you that they would be ecstatic to be 3-1 to start the season, and that the team should be more than satisfied with a 2-2 record out of the gates while their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, served his suspension. Now, they face the very real prospect of going a ridiculous 4-0 to start 2010. The only thing standing in the way of that outcome is, of course, our Baltimore Ravens.
Should the Ravens win this game, it will be as much a relief as a reason to celebrate. Going up against a team that is on what amounts to their fourth-string quarterback is a situation from which any true contender should emerge victorious much more often than not. As for your nearest yinzer-wannabe, sure they’ll come back with “yeah, but we didn’t have BEN.” While a fair point, the fact of the matter will be that the teams will sport equal 3-1 records, and “game on” moving forward.
Lose, and all hell breaks loose. The Ravens will find themselves in a two-game hole in the AFC North after only four weeks of football. At 1-2 in the division, their best case scenario would be to end the year at 4-2 against AFCN opponents – hardly a lock to win the division crown. The Steelers would have put together a 4-0 record with basically a high school offense. And the aforementioned towel wavers? Don’t think we will EVER hear the end of it, should Charlie freaking Batch figure out a way to do enough Sunday to lead his team to a victory over the “powerful” Ravens’ defense.
Doesn’t that latter scenario sound fun? See what I mean now about a loss being more “bad” than a win is “good?”
Anyway, all that said, how do I feel about the game itself?
Uneasy, at best.
We all know that when the Steelers and Ravens match up, you can pretty much throw the stats and records out the window. However, this year, one stat that is too glaring to completely omit is that of the Ravens having the 22nd-ranked rushing defense in the league. Add to that Pittsburgh’s #3 rushing attack, and the potential for the Steelers to have more success on the ground against the Ravens than they have in nearly a decade seems all too real…on paper, anyway.
In reality, the Ravens defense hasn’t been all THAT bad. Ladainian Tomlinson ripped off a couple 21-yard scampers in Week 1 that padded his stats, but was otherwise fairly well contained. Shonn Green did nothing in the same game. In Week 2, Cedric Benson, who destroyed the Ravens in 2009, was bottled up nicely. And yes, Peyton Hillis ran wild last week, but again, most of his yards came on a few big runs, and also against Greg Mattison’s “passing situation” sub packages. The now departed Trevor Pryce was a big part of those sub packages that couldn’t stop Hillis, but he seems to have no problem trashing his former teammates, guys he was lining up with not even a week ago. Apparently the #1 clause of any New York Jets contract reads “must be a jerk at all times.”
The Ravens will be better against the run in Pittsburgh. They’ll get Terrence “Mount” Cody suited up for his first NFL action, and that, along with the need for redemption for a prideful unit, will be enough to keep Rashard Mendenhall from getting anything significant going.
With task #1 accomplished, they can focus on Charlie Batch. Batch threw three touchdowns last week in Tampa, but two of those should have been interceptions. Along with the one pick he did throw, that would be a nice 1 TD/3 INT day. Batch will make mistakes Sunday. However, if potential interceptions clang off defenders hands the way they did for him last week, or the way they did for Ravens’ defenders in Week 2 in Cincinnati, it will be another nail biter down-to-the-wire type game at the convergence of the three rivers. Double up on the stick-em, Zibby.
On offense, the Ravens will have to play their best game of the season to date. And they’ll have to get off the bus ready to play. In the three games so far, the Ravens’ BEST first offensive play has been Ray Rice for 3 yards (twice). The other first play was the sack-fumble in New York. The SECOND offensive play last week should have resulted in six points the other way. The Pittsburgh crowd will be amped, and the defense will be champing at the bit to make Joe Flacco’s life a living hell. This lackadaisical, dazed, slow-start business has to stop. It’s been a disturbing characteristic of the Ravens’ offense for far too long now, and if it rears its ugly head again in Pittsburgh this week, the way that defense is playing, things could get very ugly very quickly.
If you see the Ravens’ offense moseying up to the line of scrimmage with 6-8 seconds on the play clock, and by the time they put the requisite man in motion, Flacco is snapping the ball at or near 0, so the Steelers can time their jumps off the ball…you might as well just turn the T.V. off, because they don’t stand a chance.
Cam Cameron needs to get the plays in quickly, Joe needs to relay them efficiently, and the team needs to be lined up and ready to go with 10 or more seconds on the play clock. At that point, Flacco has to be able to survey the Pittsburgh defense, attempt a pre-snap read, and make the necessary adjustments.
Eight men in the box? Audible out of that running play.
Big puffy-black-haired troll looking dude bouncing around like an idiot on the left side of the line? Slide the protection left and send the right side receiver deep against man coverage.
In short, Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron need to ENGAGE in the chess match that Dick LeBeau and the Steelers’ defense are playing, instead of simply letting them flip the board over, kick sand in their faces, and shove rooks up their noses (you’ll excuse my mixed metaphors).
Against Pittsburgh’s defense, the pre-snap battles are nearly as important as the post-snap ones, and Flacco needs to start winning the former much more often to give his team any chance to succeed in the latter.
After the snap, the Ravens have the personnel to move the ball against the Steelers. Ray Rice had over 150 total yards in both matches last year, and looks to have bounced back from his injury against the Browns to be ready to play. Anquan Boldin caught 8 balls for 84 yards in his last game against Pittsburgh, Super Bowl XLIV. Todd Heap had 2 TD grabs in the Steel City last season. Derrick Mason had seven catches in each game in 2009. T.J. Houshmandzadeh has had plenty of experience and success working against the Steelers’ secondary. And new tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta present new, unknown variables for Pittsburgh to account for.
It’s not 7-on-7, though. The onus, as it always does against Pittsburgh, will fall on the offensive line’s ability to keep Flacco upright, and his ability to get the ball out quickly. Take a sack if necessary Joe, but don’t force the ball into coverage, and don’t get stripped in the pocket. The Steelers’ defense thrives on the sack/fumble.
(An aside: Ravens fans are all too familiar with the names James Harrison and Lamar Woodley, but keep an eye out for Lawrence Timmons this time as well – he was the one that damn near killed Mason over the middle in the 2008 home game. He’s having a very strong season in the early going.)
Of those aforementioned five games against Pittsburgh in the Harbaugh/Flacco era, only one was decided by more than four points (three, three, four, three, and nine), and two went to overtime. The simple fact is, the Steelers have made the plays down the stretch to win those ballgames, while the Ravens have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.
Picking up boneheaded penalties to rob themselves of precious field position or take points off the board.
Dropping wide open passes in the end zone.
Failing to wrap up the quarterback for a sack despite getting both hands on him, letting him instead escape and make a big play.
These are the kinds of things that have doomed the Ravens time and again in this rivalry match.
Until they get them corrected, the results will continue, I’m afraid, to be the same.
Playing smart, disciplined, mistake-free football will go a long way to seeing the Ravens emerge from Heinz Field as the victors. On top of that, they must take advantage of the errors made by Batch, and not let speedster Mike Wallace get open down the field. That type of execution, combined with the absence of noted Raven-killers Santonio Holmes and Roethlisberger (a single Holmes touchdown ended up being the difference in 3 of the last four Ravens losses) should be enough to put them over the top.
Ravens 17 Steelers 10