Divisional Playof Preview: Ravens (13-4) @ Steelers (12-4)
Here we go again. For the second time in three years, either the Ravens will have their season ended at the hands of their most hated rivals…or vice versa. It might be a smidgen less stressful on some levels than the 2008 AFC Championship game – the winner doesn’t go directly to the Super Bowl, just earns the right to try to stop the Patriots’ juggernaut in Foxboro (most likely) – but on other levels there is much more pressure on the Ravens this time around.
In 2008, they far exceeded reasonable expectations, reaching the AFC Championship game with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. This year, despite going 12-4, the Ravens still underachieved in the eyes of many fans, squeaking games out by the skin of their teeth and still failing to capture the AFC North title and gain at least one home playoff game.
On paper, they’re the more talented team than Pittsburgh. In 2009, Ozzie Newsome drafted Michael Oher in the first round for pretty much one reason – block James Harrison and/or Lamarr Woodley. After the Ravens exit from last year’s playoffs, Ozzie went out and got Anquan Boldin, as the Ravens’ lack of weapons in the passing attack was seen as their “Achilles heel.”
Oher has been unsteady at best this year. Last week against Kansas City, he got beaten several times by Chiefs’ linebacker Tamba Hali. Here in January 2011, Hali (14.5 sacks in 2010) is the more dangerous pass rusher than either Harrison (10.5) or Woodley (10.0), but Oher will have to be better Saturday for the Ravens to have a chance. Those two are relentless, and have given Joe Flacco nightmares throughout his young career.
Boldin had some big games for the Ravens early in the year, but seemed to disappear down the stretch. He reemerged in Kansas City though, with his most productive day since the last Steelers game. “Q” was actually very effective against Pittsburgh this year, with 12 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown in the two games combined.
I’m going to do a bullet-point style run-down of the rest of this preview, so I can get to the work of distracting myself from thinking about this game – and subsequently vomiting – for the next few hours.
- Very disturbing news late last night about Ray Rice having a stomach flu. ESPN reported that Rice was seen vomiting at the team hotel. This “bug” has been going around the Ravens’ locker room for the last month or so. WNST’s Glenn Clark says that it is, for the most part, a 24-hour type infection. Let’s all cross our fingers that Rice can go and be effective. Not that running the ball is all that feasible against the Steelers, but losing your best player on offense will always handicap what you’re trying to do. No matter how much Mike Preston thinks that Willis McGahee may be a better fit for the Ravens’ current offensive line, #27 is still the Ravens’ most important weapon. UPDATE – Rice Tweeted that he WILL play today.
- Speaking of offensive lines, the two in this game aren’t going to be appearing on any OL teaching videos. While the Steelers’ problems come from being racked with injuries, the Ravens have just been inconsistent. They played better in the second half in KC, and will need to keep it up at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger seems to have adjusted to his own porous line, so as always the key isn’t getting in his face – it’s getting him on the ground. Matt Birk is listed as questionable with a knee injury, but should play. The thought of Chris Chester at center and Oneil Cousins at tackle just…ugh.
- Donte’ Stallworth. At this point everyone that watches Ravens games knows that if #18 is on the field, a WR reverse is likely coming. The Ravens have ran this play for what seems like a half dozen games in a row, and not necessarily successfully. In the regular season finale, Stallworth picked up a few yards before just fumbling the ball away to the Bengals. Against the Chiefs, it was stopped for no gain. It’s not fooling anybody at this point. So, I fully expect Cam Cameron to try something cute out of it this week, either a fake reverse, double reverse, WR pass, or somesuch non-sense. While I hope to be proven wrong, I just don’t see this working against Pittsburgh. I’m just hoping the tomfoolery results in just a 10-yard loss or so, and not in a turnover.
- As long as we’re talking tomfoolery, let’s not forget that trick plays are a staple of Steelers football, especially in the postseason. The Ravens’ defense will have to be on their toes for some trickery, and not let some stupid shit like an Antwaan Randle-El pass to Mike Wallace be what decides this game.
- The Ravens know all too well how rust can creep up on a team that earns a Playoff bye (see 2006). The Steelers will be well rested, but the Ravens should be sharper, at least to start the game. They’d be well-advised to start strong, and hopefully jump on Pittsburgh while they’re still adjusting to the speed of the game after two weeks off. After having been on the field for just 18 minutes in K.C., the Ravens’ defense (which is the side of the ball full of those older veterans that we worry about wearing down at the end of games) should be very fresh as well.
- Get Ben down. A hidden play from the Steelers’ 13-10 victory in Baltimore last month was the one where Haruki Nakamura came as a free runner against Roethlisberger, and had him lined up dead to rights for a sack. The third-year safety was a bit too gung-ho and out of control though, and Ben easily sidestepped him, found a receiver about 25 yards down the field, and set his team up for a field goal. It’s the kind of play that Ben has earned his living on, and minimizing them will – as always – be tantamount on Saturday. Keep the big lug in the pocket, and get him on the ground when the opportunity presents itself.
While I always pick with my heart to some degree here, I still try to be at least mostly realistic and ojective – my head/heart prediction for this game would be something like 17-16 Ravens – but that hasn’t worked out too well against Pittsburgh in the past.
So, as I said in the podcast – f it. I’m going all in this time.
Ravens 27 Steelers 13
Don’t let us down boys. Not again.