Once upon a time, an AFC North match-up promised to be a tight low-scoring game between two teams with hard-hitting ferocious defenses. My how times have changed. The North now features two of the top five offenses in football and three of the top fifteen. Plus the Browns!
Defense? We don’t need no stinkin’ defense.
The North also features two of the bottom tier defenses in the NFL. One of those belongs to those loveable Browns. The other? It’s held by the 0-3 Baltimore Ravens. Times have changed indeed.
Nobody has to tell the Pittsburgh Steelers about change. Our defense has a new coordinator for the first time since 2004. Troy Polamalu has retired as has Ike Taylor and every other defensive luminary from our two recent Super Bowl winning teams. James Harrison is the last man left standing.
But the Steelers have thus far played better than expected on D. Last week they even won a low scoring defensive struggle albeit against a team with a substandard offense. This week they face Joe Flacco and a Ravens team that has been putting points on the board in recent weeks. Steve Smith, in his final season, is doing everything he can to go out with a bang. The Flacco to Smith combo almost single-handedly won them their game last week against the undefeated Bengals.
The rest of the roster is filled with unfamiliar names. Guys like Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith are long gone, replaced by Crockett Gilmore and Kamar Aiken. RB Justin Forsett did a a great Ray Rice imitation (on-field anyway) last year but really hasn’t been a factor this season. Still, he’s a solid back that can get back on track any week now. And with Flacco at the controls, as much as I hate to admit it, he’s a good enough QB to take advantage of bad defense no matter who he’s playing with.
Our defense has done a nice job against the run this year, paced by some outstanding work from our defensive line and inside linebackers. ILB Ryan Shazier is the only player on the injury report, likely missing his second straight game. Shazier is great when healthy but this’ll be the ninth game he’s missed in the last twenty. The injury concerns on him when he was drafted have sadly proven well-founded. Although the good news is the Steelers have good depth at ILB with last week’s starter, Sean Spence, turning in a very good game in relief.
Of course the big news will be Michael Vick making his first start in the Black and Gold. Honestly, Vick is living off his reputation at this point. He’s not the guy who played in Atlanta, he’s not even the guy who had a couple good years in Philly after pulling the get out of jail free card. Given a choice between him and Bruce Gradkowski, I’d take the Polish Rifle in a heartbeat.
Unfortunately, Gradkowski isn’t an option and Vick is what we have. When you look at the list of back-up QBs starting around the league, he’s certainly a more promising option than Jimmy Clausen or Luke McCown. The problem with the current NFL is there’s such a lack of quality quarterbacks that any back-up that shows even a sliver of promise gets scooped up by a needy team. The only guys left to be back ups are untested rookies, journeyman, and washed up vets.
Antonio Brown is one of the best receivers in football. Le’Veon Bell is one of the best backs in football. Even though the downgrade from Big Ben to Vick is steeper than the Duquesne Incline, the Steelers couldn’t surround him with better talent. Big time players play big regardless of circumstance. It’s time for our big time players to step up.
Good news is they’ll have a great chance this week going against a poor Baltimore defense. The Ratbirds got off to a good start in Denver but once they lost their leader, our old friend Terrell Suggs, they seemed to just go into a tailspin they have yet to pull out of. The Raiders and Bengals gashed them at will in back to back weeks. Their secondary is currently fourth worst in the entire league, giving up nearly 300 yards per game. If Vick can’t throw against these guys…
Well, Landry Jones isn’t the answer. Although young Landry will actually be in uniform for the first time since being drafted. Let’s hope holding a clipboard is the extent of his involvement. The Steelers already have a huge mountain to climb starting tonight. After this game, we’ll have a much better idea of how high that mountain is going to be while we move on without Big Ben for the foreseeable future.