The Baltimore Ravens.
Of course it had to be the Baltimore Ravens.
After a two season absence from the NFL Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers return this Saturday night when they host the Ratbirds at Heinz Field. If you’re going to return to post-season, why not make it another chapter in what is undoubtedly one of the best rivalries in football. This will be the fourth time since 2000 that the Black and Gold have faced the Ravens three times in the same season. The first time, they were quarterbacked by Kordell Stewart in his last grasp at greatness, the last two they were led by Ben Roethlisberger on his way to a Super Bowl appearance.
Of course, the last time Baltimore was in the playoffs, they made a shocking Wild Card run culminating in their second Lombardi Trophy when they upended the Niners in the infamous Blackout Bowl.
The story going into this game is the status of star running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell reportedly had no structural damage to his knee and reports from the Steelers indicate he’s recuperating far faster than was expected. Supposedly he’s doing some light jogging and riding the exercise bike which has some hopeful he might give it a go on Saturday. I still think that would be short-sighted – all it takes is one hit to the knee and where the Steelers might have had a 90% Bell for the rest of the playoffs, they could be facing the rest of the post-season without him.
Besides, it’s not like this is a good match-up for him anyway. The Ravens D isn’t exactly good but where they do a pretty decent job is against the run. They finished the season ranked 4th in rush defense, impressive when you consider nose tackle Haloti Ngata missed the last four games after getting busted for taking prescription medicine. He’ll be back this week which means even a totally healthy Bell would find tough sledding against their big strong front line and active linebackers.
EDIT: And it’s official, Bell is ruled out for Saturday’s game. This is the smart decision but I never put it past the Steelers to do what’s in the Steelers best interest instead of the smart thing.
Then again, there’s nothing more deadly for any team than being one dimensional. If Bell doesn’t play, newly signed running back Ben Tate will likely be active in his place. Tate has been working out with the team but admitted to reporters he isn’t familiar at all with Todd Haley‘s high-powered offense. Even if he suits up I can see Josh Harris getting most of the carries with Dri Archer playing the role of pass-catching scatback. The two combined aren’t going to add up to what Bell gives us but for one week it might be enough to get by.
That’s because if the Steelers have to be one dimension, at least that one dimension matches up well with Baltimore’s weakness. Big Ben had the second of his epic back-to-back 6 TD performances against the Ravens way back in week 9 as Baltimore’s secondary has been ravaged by injury and poor play. They rank 23rd against the pass, giving up nearly 250 yards per game. That puts them in the same rarefied air as…the Steelers, who rank 27th.
Difference being, we have Ben and the best receiver in football, Antonio Brown. Our secondary weapons – highlighted by rookie Marvatis Bryant – also stepped up big time in the last meeting between the teams. Joe Flacco, to his credit, has proven to be a pretty decent post-season quarterback himself although I don’t think anybody would rank their weapons over ours. Justin Forsett was a huge part of their offense the first half of a season but he’s been slowed by injury while Steve Smith started the season on fire but has also tapered off. Still, with our secondary and talented big play guys like Smith and Stiller Killer Torrey Smith, they’ll be able to move the ball. If I was a betting man, I’d definitely take the over.
Our defense has played a bit better in recent weeks as Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, and Willie Gay have gelled into a competent if unspectacular unit. Ike Taylor has been practicing this week which makes me worried that veteran loyalist Mike Tomlin will re-insert whatever ghost of a once great player remains back into the starting line-up. Playing Ike would be a colossal mistake and while the current guys aren’t Pro Bowlers, they certainly deserve to play over him. Troy Polamalu has also been practicing and while his season hasn’t been hugely productive – and Will Allen has played solid football in his place – I would welcome him back to the field if only for his calming leadership. For all the talk of the “old Steelers” this D has a lot of youngsters and new faces on it – Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Stephon Tuitt, Mike Mitchell, Steve McClendon – so having Troy back would be a nice stabilizing influence.
This has been an odd and unpredictable season for the Steelers. That extends to our Rivalry games with the Ravens as once upon a time every game came down to 3 points or less. This year, both games have been total blow-outs with Baltimore mopping the field with us in the first meeting and the Black and Gold dropping 43 points on them in the second. Of course by saying this I’m sure I’ve ensured we end up with a 13-10 old fashioned AFC North slobberknocker.
Which, as long as the good guys end up on the better end of it, would be perfectly fine with me.