Defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens.
Even typing that sentence sends waves of bile regurgitating up through my throat. There has been some talk that with Hines Ward busy running triathlons and Stabby, er, Ray Lewis offering his insight on how to duck murder raps on ESPN while James Harrison and Ed Reed have moved on to greener NFL pastures, the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry has lost a bit of it’s luster. Whether not that’s true, the teams still play in the same division. And as long as they face each other twice a year with victory often being the difference between a playoff berth and a long off-season, the games will continue to hold great significance for both fans and players.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs RATBIRDS OFFENSE
Joe Flacco is arguably the worst quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl. Baltimore’s OTHER Super Bowl winning QB, Trent Dilfer, wasn’t very good either but the team was smart enough to avoid handing him a ridiculous $120 million contract. In any event, Bert has rewarded Baltimore’s generosity by throwing 7 TD vs 8 INTs while continuing to be the best checkdown thrower money can buy.
To be fair, Flacco is being hurt by the Ravens’ sudden inability to run the football. Ray Rice was also lavished with a big contract and for whatever reason has fallen off the map. He’s been battling injury but to go from a career average of 4.5 YPC to only a piddling 2.8 this season is a pretty drastic drop-off. Rice was always the engine that made Baltimore go so it’s no surprise the offense has been sputtering with him stuck in neutral.
It doesn’t help that the team let its best playmaking wide out – and noted Stiller Killer – Anquan Boldin go in a salary cap move. Third year man Torrey Smith has stepped up as the team’s leading receiver despite having no real threat opposite him. With Flacco at QB, naturally two of their top three receivers – Rice and TE Dallas Clark – would be checkdown catch type guys especially when the options at WR are pretty thin. Rookie Marlon Brown and something called a Tandon Doss round out what is a relatively nonthreatening receiving corps.
The Steelers defense finally sprang to life last week against the Jets. Still, despite what we may think of Flacco, he’s still a much a better quarterback than Geno Smith. There were plays to be made against the Steelers secondary last week only Geno was too inept to make them. No-Name Receivers or not, if the Steelers suffer similar breakdowns, the Ravens will capitalize on them.
Never one to mess with a winning formula, I assume the revamped line-up will remain in effect. Meaning William Gay will start at corner opposite Ike Taylor and Cam Heyward will start opposite Ziggy Hood. Strangely enough, with Cam starting it was Ziggy who played his best game of the year. In fact, he and Jason Worilds each had a sack which begs the question, why didn’t they do that BEFORE they were demoted to second string?
Speaking of Worilds, he’ll probably start this week opposite the resurgent LaMarr Woodely. Jarvis Jones got his head knocked at practice and it’s now being termed a concussion. Since the NFL has a whole battery of tests to clear a guy, it’s pretty unlikely he’ll get the green-light by Sunday. I’m not a Worlids fan – despite Jones not registering a sack, I still think his ability to collapse the pocket is a big reason Woodley’s play has improved – so hopefully his demotion has lit a fire under him.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs RATBIRDS DEFENSE
Not gonna lie, the Ravens defense scares me. It may even be better than last year’s championship unit thanks to the addition of LB Elvis Dumervil. Baltimore currently ranks third in the NFL with 22 total sacks. Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have combined for 12 of those with the D-line duo of Arthur Jones and Chris Canty adding another 6. In other words, they got a bunch of guys who can get after the quarterback.
Once again, Mike Tomlin will stick with last week’s offensive line combination featuring Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert at the tackles. Neither one instilled me with much confidence as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 4 times and hit another 8. What’s more, the line as a whole isn’t very good at run blocking which doesn’t bode well when facing a Ravens D ranked 8th against the rush. No running game + ferocious pass rush = a recipe for a lotta Big Ben booboos.
If the Steelers can somehow give Ben time to throw, he should be able to make some plays against a secondary allowing over 250 yards per game. For all their antics, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders played well against NY and will be leaned on heavily again this week. As is usually the case against Baltimore, the will likely turn on a key turnover or one or two big pass plays. If the offense can duplicate last week’s effort, that should put them in pretty good position to win.
The Ravens and Steelers find themselves in similar situations. Their 3-3 record is preferable to the Steelers 1-4 start but both teams have struggled mightily in the early going. While it’s certainly too early to call a game a must-win, we’ve seen before how a season can turn on these Baltimore-Pittsburgh match-ups. A win on Sunday and it’s a pretty safe bet the Steelers have righted the ship. A loss and their chances may not have been sunk but they may very well have taken on more water than they can absorb to remain afloat.