Ravens (5-2) @ Steelers (6-2)
Once again the Ravens and Steelers clash with the AFC North title seemingly on the line. Even though it’s early November (way to go, NFL Schedule makers), and with all due respect to the 5-2 Cincinnati Bengals, doesn’t it just feel like yet another playoff-type game between these two heavyweights?
They say “the records don’t matter” when these two meet, but just for fun let’s look at the records when these teams have gotten together over the past four seasons:
2011: 0-0; 5-2, 6-2
2010: 2-1, 3-0; 8-3, 8-3
2009: 5-5, 6-4; 8-6, 7-7
2008: 2-0, 2-1; 9-4, 10-3
Coming into Ravens-Steelers regular season games since 2008, the Ravens have entered with a combined record of 39-21, and Pittsburgh with a combined mark of 42-20. Thats a collective winning percentage of .66. Yeah, these teams are good. Throw in the records for the two playoff matchups, and it obviously jumps even higher.
The stakes are always high. This time is no different.
Since that opening day beatdown, when the Ravens supposedly exposed Pittsburgh as being old and slow, the Steelers have (predictably, and annoyingly) gotten their act together, winning six of seven. Granted, they’ve done it against some sorry teams (Seattle, Indy, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Arizona – combined record of 9-28), but the Ravens stumbled against one of those same teams and nearly fell to another. Those Ravens’ hiccups denied themselves what should have been some breathing room going into Heinz Field.
The Steelers do have one very impressive win on their resume though, last week’s 25-17 win over New England. Pittsburgh played lights out on both offense and defense in that game, holding the ball for nearly 40 minutes and allowing Tom Brady to complete just 3/10 third down tries.
The NFL is definitely a “what have you done lately?” kind of league, so that performance against the Patriots – along with the Ravens falling behind 24-3 to Arizona – has everybody and their mother picking the Steelers to stomp the purple and black this Sunday night.
Again, the Ravens find themselves as underdogs going into western PA. Nobody seems to remember 35-7, nor the fact that the Ravens have built their team to matchup favorably with, and to beat, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pittsburgh is also dealing with a mess of injuries on both sides of the ball. Linebackers and perennial Ravens headaches James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are both no better than questionable for the game, as is fellow LB James Farrior. On the other side, wide receivers Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders are both dealing with injuries. The way it sounds right now, only Ward and possibly Harrison are likely to play out of that group.
Pittsburgh’s best offensive and defensive players – Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu – will both be on the field though, and the Steelers’ “next man up” philosophy mirrors that of the Ravens. They have depth at linebacker and defensive line, so I don’t see the injuries tilting this one TOO FAR in the Ravens’ favor.
Ben won’t have nearly as easy a day against the Ravens’ #3 passing defense as he did against New Englands 32nd-ranked unit. Along with Terrell Suggs (who keeps Ben’s ass in a refrigerator in his basement), and his team-leading six sacks, Ben will have to deal with the emerging pass-rush threats of the Ravens, Pernell McPhee (2.5 sacks) and Paul Kruger (3 sacks). The Ravens have 25 sacks this season through just seven games, after registering only 27 all of last season (Thank you, Greg Mattison!).
There is little doubt the Ravens will get to Ben on Sunday (heck, the Patriots got him 5 times), but the key is turning the yardage lost on those sacks into punts from the Steelers. Despite the five sacks, Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda stepped on the field just once last week, as Pittsburgh went 10/16 on third down. On the other hand, the Ravens have allowed only 4 third down conversions on opponents’ last 31 tries (not including two that were converted by penalty). For the year, the Ravens are allowing just 28.6% on third down, good for best in the NFL. Keeping that trend going will go a long way toward walking out of Pittsburgh with a win.
The loss of Sanders (18 rec, 243 yards, 2 TD) hurts Pittsburgh, but they still have plenty of weapons at WR. Ward, while past his prime, can still move the chains with the best of them, and his little antics to get under the Ravens’ skin are always a worry to draw a personal foul flag or two (though lately, the Ravens have handled themselves well). We all know about Mike Wallace, and Antonio Brown (34 rec, 431 yards, 1 TD) is another young speedster.
An aside about the “young” wide receivers on Pittsburgh. Ravens fans have spent so long hating Hines Ward that it’s second nature at this point. Ward won’t be around on the field a whole lot longer though, so it’s time to get used to hating these guys. Wallace, Sanders, and Brown have given themselves the name “young money.” Ugh. Not only is this horribly douchey and annoying, but they stole it from rapper Lil’ Wayne. He wants it back.
On defense, the Steelers have gotten their act back together after allowing four touchdowns in Baltimore. The most points they’ve given up since then is 20, and they are allowing under 12 points per game at home (slightly skewed due to shutting out the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2). They flustered Tom Brady – which the Ravens have done on occasion – and had much better success against Matt Hasselbeck than the Ravens were able to. Even without Woodley and/or Harrison, my biggest worry about this game is Dick LeBeau coaching circles around Cam Cameron.
LeBeau went against every instinct in his body last week against New England, playing press man coverage instead of his usual zone blitzing scheme. If he can come up with something to confuse Brady and Belichick…I shudder to think what he can do to Cam and Flacco.
I know Ray Rice likes to say that football is a “players game” not a coaches game, and that they should be able to execute no matter the play call, but I’ve seen Cam take too long to adjust too many times to be comfortable.
What worked last week? Well, the shotgun/muddle huddle/short passing game did. But don’t expect to see too much of that this week. The Ravens came out early in the week dropping preemptive strikes suggesting that they have no interest in that scheme becoming their de facto offensive philosophy.
Ravens say Flacco has completed only 50.9% of his 109 throws out of the shotgun, w/ 4 INT’s, 2TD’s & 9 sacks for a 62.8 quarterback rating.
Translation: don’t expect to see Joe in the shotgun on every play.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the Ravens can establish the kind of running game they were able to in Week 1 against the Steelers, when they ran for 170 yards, it will also be a huge key to victory. The Houston Texans were also able to gash Pittsburgh on the ground, going for 180 yards in Week 4. The Ravens and Texans have similar running schemes, so that leaves some hope that Vonta Leach will be able to clear some space for Ray Rice.
The Ravens have the chance to sweep Pittsburgh for the first time since 2006. They had chances in 2009 and 2010 as well, but came up short both times. With the injuries the Steelers are dealing with, there is no better time than now to go into “The Lion’s Den” and come out on top.
Win Sunday, and you’re in great position to still – despite the two eggs laid in Tennessee and Jacksonville – control your own destiny moving forward and potentially earn a top playoff seed in the AFC. Lose, and it’s the same old story for the Ravens – you’re likely to find yourselves in yet another dogfight for a Wild Card spot, and another steep, steep climb to get to the Super Bowl.
John Harbaugh’s 14-13 regular season road record inspires little confidence. Still, the Ravens have outplayed Pittsburgh the last two times they have met. Here’s hoping they do it again, and avoid the costly mistakes that have hounded them in years past.
Ravens 20 Steelers 17
P.S. Just came across this on twitter: In his last 5 starts vs. Pitt, Flacco has 8 TDs & 2 INTs. In his last 5 starts vs. Bal, Roethlisberger has 5 TDs & 6 INTs.
So there’s that.