When the World Stops – War on the Gridiron, this Sunday!
Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said earlier this week that when the Ravens play the Steelers this weekend “The world will stop.” With these teams set to kick-off Sunday Night there was no way I was going to let the game pass without previewing it. At first I was going to write about each team’s individual units, the stength of their o-lines, their WR’s etc. It never quite felt right. A match-up like this cannot be graded just on individual strengths or what these teams had done lately; this goes beyond that.
When these two teams meet it is more like when two great boxers get in the ring. It doesn’t matter who they just beat, it matters what each of them brings to the table and how they will feed off each other. So instead of a position breakdown let’s try to cover the main forces at work in this game.
Game #1: Ravens 35, Pittsburgh 7 – We’re not saving the biggest factor for last. On opening weekend the Steelers showed up in Baltimore and got their asses kicked. It probably would not have been a massive beat down if the Steelers could have just hung onto the ball. They were able to move the ball at times in the first half but went into half-time down 21-7 because of a big fumble. The Ravens were not about to blow back -to-back big leads against the Steelers (see 2010 Playoffs), and the Steelers pretty much handed Baltimore the game withive f second half turnovers.
My biggest memory of the game, aside from Haloti Ngata almost taking a hand-off from Ben Roethilisberger in the Steelers back-field, was how unstoppable Ray Rice seemed, and how helpless the Steelers looked when trying to tackle him. The Steelers had no answers that day, but when all the facts are considered maybe we should have seen a Ravens ‘W’ coming. Baltimore had just lost a heart-breaker to Pittsburgh in January – their hated arch rival ended their season. The coaches and players spent all off-season thinking about this single fact. Then they saw they got the Steelers at home on opening weekend and proceeded to spend the next three months devising a plan to attack their defense. It worked. Now it is the Steelers turn to counter and I don’t see Baltimore having the same emotional edge in this game.
By the way, I can’t tell you how dissapointed I was to see this game on the schedule for opening weekend. Not only did it seem like a waste since I was already going to be excited about whoever was playing in week one but I felt like both teams were being cheated. I want to watch these two slug it out in the middle of the season when they are both playing at their best and have a feel for the type of team they are. Or save a match for the final weeks when you can actually see the division title being decided in each game. But in week one? There is always a chance that someone shows up unprepared and that is what happened. Not that there is any excuse for being unprepared.
After the Ravens took a huge chunk out of the Steelers in week one I think the Steelers will have narrowed the gap on the emotional advantage come Sunday.
Joe Flacco – I have never been a Flacco fan and he is pretty much the reason I end up siding with the Steelers in nearly every contest between the two. Back in week six someone wrote about Joe Flacco’s improvements this season right before the stinker against the Jets where neither offense could move the ball( 51 combined points – 1 offensive TD). http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/NFP-Sunday-Blitz-1909.html I didn’t have to wait until seeing the Jets game to get a kick out of the article and Joe Flacco’s knee flexion has been a running gag for me ever since (read the article). But last week facing a huge defecit against the Arizona Cardinals the Ravens offense opened it up and Flacco let it rip. He took over the game by finding Anquan Boldin everywhere on the field, finishing with 336 passing yards and earning a last second victory. Not too bad.
Now, can he prove himself in back-to-back weeks? When Baltimore defeated the Steelers in week one it was the only win Joe Flacco has earned against Ben Roethlisberger. But this Steelers defense might not be the same unit Flacco is used to facing. While still good, I hesitate to describe them with their usual adjectives like ferocious and devastating. In fact this Steelers D is forcing turnovers at a historically low rate. http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7101375/has-steel-curtain-gone-soft They are also banged up along the D-line so they can not force teams into 2nd or 3rd and long nearly as much as they used to in the past. If Flacco is looking to step up and become the player I never thought he could be, now is certainly a good time.
Trends – Since my friend, Joe, entered the league in 2008 these teams have squared off nine times. The Steelers own a 6-3 edge and have won both playoff games between the two. What is interesting is that so far the Ravens always seem to fare better in the early season match-up. All three Raven victory’s have come in the opening contest between the two (3-1 record) and they usually have been early season tilts as well (except 2009: November 29th). The only loss in the opening game was in Overtime, also. On top of this each regular season game since 2008 until week one was decided by four points or less.
The Steelers O-line – The truth is neither O-line is playing like a top of the league unit right now but I think the Steelers woes could be more exposed. Currently they start a unit comprised of a tackle they had no plans to be on the team this year due to the starter being lost for the season, a left tackle playing through injury, a back-up guard, and two other players who have appeared on the injury report as recently as week six. This was not a unit that was widely considered as even above average when totally healthy; not the best situation.
The troubles have shown up on the ground more than through the air. The Steelers lead back, Rashard Mendenhall, has put up one big game, other than that his second best rushing perfromance of the season is 70 yards – against the defenseless Patriots. Big Ben, or Berger as I like to call him, is at his best when scrambling and shaking tackles so the Oline has not bothered him as much. But against a truly elite defense the O-line needs to block because one player can not do it all himself. Combine these struggles with the fact that the Ravens have rediscovered their ability to get after the QB (2nd in the league in sacks) and you have a bad situation for Mr. Roethilisberger. This is before we even talk about one of the biggest forces this game has to offer.
Haloti Ngata – The human force. He changed the week one match-up by penetrating through the line and destroying Rashard Mendenhall before the play could develop, or Mendenhall could really even take the ball. Result: Fumble, ensuing TD and now the Ravens are up 14-0. With both Olines hurting it is the Steelers unit you worry for because no one on their defense is playing at the level of Ngata right now. He could single-handedly take over this game. How many players can you say that about?
Injuries – Beyond the O-line issues the Steelers are having they will be without star defensive player LaMarr Woodley. This loss is offset by the return of James Harrison (probable). But this still puts the Steelers key LB unit at less than full strength. Emmanuel Sanders one of the Steelers top WR will also miss the game. For the Ravens Ben Grubbs, offensive guard, may be back but nothing else is worth mentioning.
Hines Ward – He has missed the last few Steelers games, Terrell Suggs had this to say about him: “I’m looking right at you 86. I need you to play.” “Please put on that 86, that smile and all the things you do. We need all that for this game.” When I read this I am ready for the game to start right then and there. Ward is such an integral part of the Steelers and Ravens-Steelers history that Suggs is begging him to play just so he can compete against him. Or maybe so he can kick his ass? I don’t know, I just know I’m not going to miss it.
The Spread – Right now the Steelers are favored by 3. Is there another time in history where one team has been beaten by 28 points and then been favored over that same team eight weeks later? Seriously, I want to know. Can someone email me? Either way you have to be tempted to take the points in this match-up.
Feel – All important feel. I am usually feeling the Steelers in this match-up. History favors the Steelers. Berger is a great QB, Flacco is still unknown. Both defense’s are usually very good, so I just side with the QB and it usually works. This year something doesn’t feel right about the Steelers offense. Even in their “dominanting” win over the Patriots last week the Steelers offense had a chance to ice the game by gaining one more first down against the Patriots defense and couldn’t do it. So they put themselves in the worst situation in football – leading by less than seven with under two minuts left and Brady with the ball in his hands. They escaped, but this is not a new problem for the Steelers.
And their defense is just not the same with all their injuries. While they have adapted admirably they lack the ability to dominate the line of scrimage on every down as in the past. The Ravens defense on the other hand is playing great. The 30 points they gave up last week was heavily turnover-assisted. Other than that their defense alone has given up an average of less than 12 points per game in 6 other games including only 6 TD’s. In FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats the Ravens defense ranks 1st against the Pass and 2nd against the run. Their overall ranking puts them so far ahead of the rest of the pack that the second place Jets are closer to 14th place than they are to the Ravens. In this match-up I am taking the unit that is playing the best right now. And that is the Ravens Defense.
It will be hard-hitting, emotional and desperate, and I don’t think it will be the last time the world stops this season.
…and that is the last word.