Sometimes I really don’t understand football. I suppose I shouldn’t admit that here since for whatever reason people who read blogs automatically assume the writer know as much about football as Chuck Noll. Truthfully, the best any of us can do, from the guys who write for SI or ESPN all the way down to lowly bloggers, is offer our best guess. I sure would like to a fancy title like Senior NFL Insider, though.
Anyway, all week we’ve waited with baited breath for any scrap of information about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Granted, Ben has a history of making Terminator-like comebacks just when things seem the bleakest so it’s not altogether crazy to hope he has one more in him. And we are playing the Baltimore Ravens in a pivotal game, a game where a loss not only puts a division title out of reach but makes it so the Steelers pretty much have to run the table to make the playoffs.
All that said, what I don’t understand is how anybody can seriously endorse the idea of Ben coming back on Sunday. Does nobody remember last year’s Monday night fiasco in San Francisco? Ben toughed it out that week and continued toughing it out until the team got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Ben took an extra week off to rest up. Maybe his foot was just too far gone and he was going to play at 50% no matter what. But at some point you have to put the big picture ahead of the right now.
Would I love to see #7 jog onto the field in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon? Absolutely. Would it be the smart thing for the team? Absolutely not.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs RATBIRDS OFFENSE
The last time these two teams met, Dick LeBeau‘s crew did a fantastic job keeping them off the scoreboard. It’d be foolish to expect the exact same level of dominance this time around. Unfortunately, that’s what we may need to have any realistic shot at winning.
With few exceptions, Joe Flacco has struggled mightily against the Steelers. LeBeau has basically figured out what the rest of the league is slowly catching on to; when you take away Ray Rice and put the game entirely on Flacco’s arm, you have a better than 50-50 shot at pulling out a win. I’m not going to rehash my critique of Flacco (you can read it in my previous Know Thy Enemy) except to say he is what he is. He’s not the worst QB in the league but he’s not the kind of singular talent that can take over a game through sheer talent either. Last week’s 29 yard catch and run by Rice which snatched victory from the jaws of defeat is the perfect encapsulation of the Ravens offense.
Troy Polamalu continues to practice normally as it looks like he’ll definitely be back Sunday. Troy hasn’t been his old self for a couple seasons now but playing the Ravens usually brings out the best in him. If there’s any Steeler who causes Flacco to wake up in a cold sweat, it’s Troy. Throughout the rivalry, Troy has frequently been the one who makes that one game-changing play which spelled the difference between a win and a loss.
It was exactly that kind of game changing play the defense needed to make last time and didn’t. Will they make it now that Troy’s back in the line-up? I like their chances a lot more.
Since the Football Gods can never give without taking away, LaMarr Woodley will be out with a re-aggravation of the leg injury which knocked him out earlier in the season. Jason Worilds has come on this season to where he’s actually the team leader in sacks (5). Other than a momentary flash of his old self, Woodley hasn’t done much of anything this year so playing Worilds is probably a good thing in the scheme of things. James Harrison is starting to look like his old self and the inside duo of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have been strong all season. I’m not sure the Steelers D can play better than they did in the first meeting but I definitely wouldn’t be shocked if they did.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs RATBIRDS DEFENSE
Where do I start? How about the good news? Assuming Charlie Batch starts as expected, at least he’ll have a full complement of weapons to toss his wounded ducks at. Antonio Brown has practiced all week and is going to start. Any questions about who the Steelers #1 wide out is have been answered in AB’s absence. Mike Tomlin decided to play some mind games this week by listing Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace as co-starters on the depth chart. For some reason, media types have been on radio all week trying to argue that Steeler fans are being too hard on Wallace for his lack of production. Boo hoo, cry me a river. I don’t care that he held out. What I do care about is that he strutted around like he was one of the best receivers in football and hasn’t played anywhere close to that.
Another Tomlin mandate is that the team will feature Jonathan Dwyer as the primary back with Isaac Redman backing him up. Again, the media has been reacting aghast that he’d demote Rashard Mendenhall to third string despite the fact he’s done absolutely nothing to merit playing time. Mendenhall isn’t a good back. He tip toes too much and doesn’t run aggressively to daylight. His only selling point is this mythical “breakaway speed” people keep mentioning yet I can count on one hand how many long TD runs he’s had during his entire career here. Dwyer has shown that when you give him 15-20 carries he’ll run hard, wear down a defense and give you respectable YPC.
The blocking for Dwyer may be a problem. The team’s most beastly run blocker, Willie Colon, hasn’t practice much this week and is looking doubtful. To the team’s credit, they’ve finally realized Doug Legursky sucks at guard but is perfectly capable at center (probably because you can get away with being a small quick center but not really at guard). So if Colon can’t go, they’ve taken the extreme option of moving Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to guard and inserting the Big Legursky at his natural position. I haven’t seen Pouncey play guard but if David DeCastro isn’t ready to play (and this radical re-alignment suggest he’s an emergency option at best) this seems to be the best arrangement.
Last game, the Steelers had nothing happening on the ground while Byron Leftwich missed wide open receivers left and right. On the flipside, the Ravens offense did a whole bunch of nothing with the their lone TD coming on a punt return. Let’s say the Steelers D slips a little this time and gives up two whole TDs. Can Charlie realistically put up 17-20 points on the Ratbirds? Off what we saw in Cleveland, the answer would be no. However, this is almost certainly the final start of Charlie Batch’s long career. He’s not going to go out without taking a couple swings. Let’s hope one or two connect.