The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. There really isn’t much to add to that. It has already become one of the NFL’s most heated rivalries. While the departure of guys like Hines Ward and Ray Lewis has taken away some of the on-field animosity, the rivalry will continue to burn as long as these two teams continue to face each other in big games.
And make no mistake, this is a huge game. About a month ago, the joke going around was NBC probably wishes they could flex Ravens-Steelers out of the coveted Thanksgiving night prime time slot. Both were mired at the bottom of the standings and looked like a couple of teams going nowhere. Thanks to modest winning streaks and the mediocrity of the AFC, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh now find themselves in the thick of the Wild Card race.
As if Ravens-Steelers isn’t important enough. As if a showcase on Thanksgiving wasn’t important enough. Now we get to throw in major playoff implications. With seven teams basically tied for the second Wild Card, head-to-head victories and Conference Record are going to be the difference between a trip to the playoffs and an early off-season.
While I fully expect another close game, let’s just hope it doesn’t go to overtime. We all remember what happened last time the Steelers played an OT game on Thanksgiving.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs RAVENS OFFENSE
In our first meeting, Joe Flacco attempted to kill with paper cuts by attacking the Steelers with his vast array of screens and check downs. The Steelers were able to keep Baltimore’s offense in check until the very end when they ground out a seven minute game tying touchdown drive. It was the only touchdown Baltimore scored – the Steelers could only muster one as well – but it came at the worst possible time. The good news was other than a 41 yard bomb to Torrey Smith, there weren’t any real splash plays from Baltimore’s offense.
Since we last saw them, Ray Rice had a brief resurgence in rushing for 131 yards against the Bears but fell right back down to earth last week against the Jets. Sandwiched around that big day in Chicago is an 18 carry for 30 yard performance in Cincy and a 16 carry for 30 yard output in New York. Rice is clearly a player in steep decline although it appears he can still summon his old self on occasion. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if he did it against the teams he’s repeatedly tortured through the years.
The Ravens pitiful offense has contributed to them playing a ton of close games. All but two have been decided by a touchdown or less with six coming down to a field goal. When you play that many tight ones, victory or defeat usually hinges on one or two big plays. Last week, it was a 66 yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones that broke the game open.
If the Steelers can curb their habit of breaking down defensively – I’m looking at you, Ike Taylor – a couple times every game, the Ravens should struggle like they’ve done all season. As I wrote yesterday, LaMarr Woodley has started practicing which is usually a sign he’s set to return. I’d be loathe to mess with the Jason Worilds Experience but perhaps they can work Woodley in gradually spelling Jarvis Jones on the other side. Brett Keisel has also returned to practice which is less notable since he and Ziggy Hood are basically a wash.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs RAVENS DEFENSE
Both teams are coming off perhaps their best defensive performances of the season. The Steelers hounded, harassed, and repeatedly took the ball away from Cleveland. Meanwhile, Baltimore held the Jets without a touchdown, giving up only a lone field goal. Granted neither one of those teams are the Joe Montana 49ers but it’s still showing a pattern of improvement for two defenses that were gashed earlier in the year.
The Steelers running game was the story of their first meeting, with Le’Veon Bell posting a career best 93 yards while all backs combined for 141 yards. The absence of Haloti Ngata at nose tackle really collapsed the Baltimore run D. He’s listed as limited participation in practice so I imagine he’ll do what he can on Thursday. I haven’t seen the Ratbirds play since our first meeting so I have no idea how healthy he currently is. If he’s anywhere near as banged up as last time, that should be good news for Bell.
Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown has been one of the most lethal combos in the league the past several weeks. The Ravens defense is ranked 11th against both the pass and run so there’s no real obvious method of attack. AB has made the big play a true #1 receiver makes the past couple weeks so at the very least he should get ample opportunity to make it three in a row. As we’ve seen, these games often swing on a play or two so if you’re gonna go down, go down swinging with your biggest punches.
The loser isn’t going to be eliminated from playoff contention. The AFC is far too terrible for anybody to be counted out based on one loss. But the winner of this game will certainly get a leg up on the loser and possibly several other contenders depending on how things shake on Sunday. Besides, beating the Ratbirds is ALWAYS fun.
Speaking of fun, Happy Thanksgiving everybody!