Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ravens-Steelers Preview: Playing with the Big Boys

Windsor and I ventured to Ann Arbor this weekend to catch the Michigan-Wisconsin game, and by the time there was 3 minutes left in the third quarter and Michigan trailed 19-0 we wished we had traveled to Clemson instead. By the end, as Michigan upset #9 Wisconsin 27-25 in a furious comeback and fantastic finish, there was no were else is the world I would have rather been. Look out for a full recap and report on Tuesday of one of the most exciting game I have had the pleasure to attend, especially with Windsor. I know this is a Maryland blog, but Go Blue!

However, the world of football moves fast, and it is already time to turn around and prepare for the primetime debut of the Baltimore Ravens. It is no secret that this is an intense rivalry, and that this game means a great deal more to the teams engaged than control of the AFC North. The Ravens have fans starting to believe, at least tentatively, that perhaps this team has a chance to make the playoffs, to even win the division. With San Diego barely putting Oakland to bed today and the AFC South not playing to its potential, the playoffs seem like a legitimate possibility. The Steelers, on the other hand, are trying to reassert themselves as the top dog in the North after a lackluster start that has included a loss to a resurgent Philadelphia squad and a defensive struggle against the hapless Browns.

What I’m Wondering:

How effective will Flacco be against a smart Steelers D?
As long as the Ravens are starting a rookie in Joe Flacco, the quarterback position will continue to be the Number One concern for the Ravens. The Steelers front seven is known to pull numerous stunts and the occasional zone blitz at the line, which will go a long way towards confusing the young (but so far effective) Ravens signal caller. One player in particular to watch out for is second-year player LaMarr Woodley, a force of nature in college, has taken time to bulk up and adjust to the pro game but has 2 sacks in the first 3 games and has been said to figure more and more into the pass rush of the Steelers this season. Lest we forget, Troy Polamalu has a long history of wreaking havoc on Ravens quarterbacks from the safety spot for years. The last time a Ravens rookie qb faced the Steelers for the first time it was not pretty. Will Flacco be able to stay poised in the highest-pressure situation he has faced as a Raven.

Are the Ravens ready for top-flight competition?
I understand how excited everyone is after a 2-0 start against division opponents- really, I do. But did anyone see the Browns-Bengals game today? These are two of the worst teams in the league, and the Ravens failed to put either team away until late in the game. The Steelers, meanwhile, are reigning division champs who won the Super Bowl only 3 years ago. They may have had a difficult run of it so far, but this team is still one of the top teams in the AFC. Unlike years ago, they have recently boasted an explosive offense to go with the second best defense in the NFL. Beating up on the doormats of the AFC is always fun, but how will the Ravens react to playing against top competition for the first time this season?

Will Ben Roethlisberger be held in check?
The defense has looked incredible, ranking 1st in the NFL in yards allowed- again however, against absolutely atrocious offenses. The Steelers, for their part, haven’t looked all that secure along the offensive line themselves. Alan Faneca means a whole lot more than a big body in the middle of the field. He is the field general of the offensive line, setting protections and identifying the rush. With Faneca gone to the Jets, the Steelers have scrambled to make adjustments. The line fell apart against the Eagles, allowing 9 sacks, and didn’t look much better against the Browns. Will the Steelers be able to keep Roethlisberger on his feet long enough to make plays with his arm?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

This is a rivalry. I know everyone in the AFC North claims a rivalry with the Steelers- one of the troubles with such a repetitive playing schedule, but the Ravens are the only team that has been able to challenge the Steelers consistently in recent years, leading the series 4-2 since 2005. Regardless of the year, the Ravens have always been a tough play for the Steelers. Why? They do what the Steelers do, only they are just as intimidating up front. While the Steelers have migrated more towards a finesse offense with the departure of Jerome Bettis and the maturation of Ben Roethlisberger, the Ravens have remained hardnosed and old fashioned, if old fashioned is defined as a mediocre offense. Don’t throw the records out altogether, but remember that far more will be on the minds of these players tomorrow night.

The Ravens Offense vs. the Steelers Defense
As predicted here last week, Ray Rice’s carries were replaced in large part by Willis McGahee and La’Ron McClain, though neither one was particularly effective. What did surprise me was the failure of Cam Cameron to utilize either back more in passing situations out of the backfield. Flacco made some poor decisions and could have used more of a safety valve to throw to, particularly early on in the game before the defense handed turnovers and great field position over to the offense. I believe the coaching staff may have been too ambitious with Flacco’s development last week, and they would be loathe to repeat the same mistake this week. The running game will likely not be explosive against this tough Steelers defense- that is to be expected. But if the backs can be used to manufacture a short passing game and keep the front seven spread out along the line of scrimmage with linebackers protecting the flats, Flacco could be given the time he needs not to rush his throws downfield.

Unlike Romeo Crennel, Mike Tomlin has been in a position to bring the house. During his year in Minnesota as defensive coordinator, the Vikings ranked 1st in rush defense but 31st in pass defense. To compensate for this disparity the Vikings rarely had the luxury of blitzing, finishing 25th in the NFL in sacks with 30. Upon arrival with the Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers dropped somewhat in sacks to only 36 in 2007, but remain one of the more fearsome units in the AFC, particularly in terms of stopping the run. That could get into Flacco’s head the first time he is knocked to the ground. Cam Cameron will need to diversify his play calling to keep the Steelers away from the line to open up enough lanes for McGahee and McClain to legitimize the threat of the run.

The Ravens Defense vs. the Steelers Offense
Like the Browns and Bengals, it is difficult to determine what the Steelers offense is right now. This team struggled to put up points against any of their opponents except the Texans in the opener, and without Willie Parker running the football it could get worse. However, I have never felt that Parker was the key to the Steelers success on the ground. The Steelers have always succeeded in a scheme with their running backs- and Rashard Mendenhall, though he was the most overrated running back in the draft, will be a serviceable backup.

The Steelers offensive line has struggled, but it is not so bad that it cannot be remedied. Pittsburgh has been so dominant up front for so long that they may have taken it for granted- calling plays that took far too long to develop. Roethlisberger may have to get back to his roots, getting out of the pocket a bit more and even using his legs to get necessary first downs. Last year in particular Roethlisberger was encouraged to become even more of a pocket passer. Allowing Roethlisberger more freedom should alleviate the difficulties caused by a confused offensive line that does not lack for talent but has yet to gel so far this season.

The Rundown
This game comes down to one sad but critical fact- looking back the Ravens haven’t beaten anyone they should not have beaten. The Ravens, even if they were the 20th or 25th best team in the NFL would still have beaten the Bengals and Browns. So are the Ravens any better than we thought they would be, or are the two Ohio doormats just that bad? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Steelers are good. They have proven it by winning the division consistently since 2000 with the exceptions of 2005 (Cincinnati) and 2006 (Ravens). Based on what I know, the Ravens are unlikely to pull out a win, especially in the swirling winds of Heinz Field.

Flacco will be harried and confused by the Steelers 3-4 defensive front and the running game will not be able to do enough to keep the chains moving consistently. Meanwhile, the Steelers will break out of their offensive funk long enough to make a few big plays and have greater success on the ground than most prognosticators anticipate. The Ravens may be good, but they are not ready for primetime.

The nod goes to the Steelers, 24-13

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun; Lloyd Fox)

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