Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ravens-Steelers Preview: Time to Make Their Move

A programming note: I am moving today (I am actually writing this in a tiny corner of my room with a TV on one side and a huge box of kitchenware on the other), so Falco and Windsor have again provided the What I’m Wondering portion of the preview. Enjoy.

While most die-hard Ravens fans will be quick to point out how much the offense has improved since the Ravens first met the Steelers back on September 29th, I would also like to remind readers that this Steelers team has been no slouch, either. The Ravens’ biggest win this season has been against the struggling Redskins, while the Steelers have taken down the Patriots and Cowboys in the last 2 weeks alone. This game will determine whether the Ravens are fighting for the AFC North or a Wildcard spot, and with the AFC East being as strong as it is (who saw that coming?), a division lead would be a much safer bet. Finally, let’s not forget that a first-round bye is still on the table. Tennessee has the #1 seed almost locked up, but the winner of the AFC North looks to be in prime position for a first round by and homefield advantage until the AFC Championship. The Ravens always play better at home; they need that homefield advantage. This will be like Michigan-Ohio State of old- a big rivalry game that means something for winning the conference.

What Flacco and Windsor are Wondering:

Can the Ravens protect Flacco?
I know that questions like this are cliché, but in this game it is of paramount importance. The Steelers’ pass defense is predicated on the pass rushing ability of Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison, and that tandem has wreaked havoc on the Ravens offense in their recent meetings. In their first matchup this season, a 23-20 overtime loss for the Ravens, Joe Flacco was sacked five times. That simply won’t cut it. The Ravens cannot win this game without Flacco getting into a rhythm in the passing game, and that can’t happen without solid pass protection. In other words, Flacco can’t be on his back-o. - Windsor

Can the pass rushers finish?
In previous games the Ravens have had no trouble getting to Ben Roethlisberger, but he is repeatedly able to break the tackles and make big plays down the field. Big Ben is easily the greatest quarterback in the game at breaking tackles in the pocket, and his composure and field awareness makes it such that when he breaks those tackles he can break off big plays down the field. Thus the Ravens have to not only finish off Roethlisberger when they have the opportunity, but when they aren’t able to the players in coverage need to stay with the play until the whistle is blown, not just until it appears that Ben is going to go down. - Windsor

How will the Ravens deal with the Steelers' rushing attack?
It doesn't matter if Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, or the one-legged man is getting the carries, the Steelers will run the football well and often. It is the crux of their style even if Big Ben is the star. The Ravens have had one of the best rushing defense in football, still not allowing a 100-yard rusher this season, and though they have faced stronger rushing attacks this season, the Steelers are not afraid to run it. Look for Willie Parker to constantly run through the middle; the Steelers don't often run east-west, even though that would fit Parker's style. Trevor Pryce, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs will be tested greatly today, and the Ravens need to be ready. - Falco

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

This Steelers defense is the best in the NFL right now. I say that not only because their numbers are better than the Ravens (those number can be deceiving), but that they have done it against stout competition, shutting down the top offenses in the league. They are averaging a little over 14 points per game allowed, an incredible state made even more impressive by their offensive weakness this season. In many ways, the Ravens and Steelers defenses are almost identical. Rushing allowed per game? Ravens 77, Steelers 73. Passing yards allowed per game? Ravens 176, Steelers 169. Sacks? Ay, there’s the rub. Despite what is often considered a blistering pass rush, the Ravens have only sacked the opposing quarterback 28 times to the Steelers 45, which is currently tied for the league’s best. However, before anyone hits the panic button, I think this stat will be balanced out in the end as well. No matter what anyone (including myself) thinks about the “unbalanced line” that Cam Cameron has introduced, it has revealed a tremendous amount of faith that the coaching staff has in this group of linemen. Joe Flacco has only been sacked 23 times this season. Ben Roethlisberger? 38 times, including 9 times against the Ravens earlier in the season. It is safe to say that the sack numbers here could wind up even.

In fact, when all is said and done there is very little separating these two defenses. Rex Ryan is a bit more of a varied defensive coordinator, while Dick LeBeau, Steelers defensive coordinator, tends to either send everything or nothing. With Ryan, you will have a blitzer coming or the threat of a blitz from numerous angles, and he is not afraid to send anyone in no matter how the play appears pre-snap. With LeBeau, he will crash the entire line or send a Troy Palomalu safety blitz or utilize a zone blitz, but he does not have the “mad scientist” in him like Rex Ryan does. What the Steelers do they do extremely well, no need to mix things up too much.

This game is going to come down to how well each offense can execute against consistent pressure and a lockdown secondary. First, the Steelers. Surprisingly, the Ravens are averaging 24.3 points per game, 2 points higher than the Steelers this season. However, do not confuse this for complete offense ineptitude. Yes, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is not what it was with Alan Faneca, and it has broke down in the passing game. But in his last 4 games, Ben Roethlisberger has been able to throw for 4 touchdowns and only 1 interception, and has been taking sacks rather than throwing errant passes. He is still not playing like the Big Ben of the last few seasons, but nor is he struggling as much as he was earlier in the season. Much of the reason for his early season struggles as well as his recent turnaround has been the return of the running game, namely the presence of Willie Parker. Parker has not lit up opponents this season, averaging only 3.9 yards per carry (good for the worst in his career), but he has provided a legitimate running threat that Mewelde Moore cannot give in a starter role.

Like the Ravens, the Steelers have compensated for their offensive difficulties by limiting Roethlisberger to safe throws, short routes to full-time cheap shot artist and part-time wide receiver Hines Ward and setting up for a long gainer down the middle of the field from Santonio Holmes or Nate Washington. The Ravens defense has given up more than one game-winning drive because they allowed Big Ben to work the middle of the field. It will be a struggle to maintain tight man coverage, because this wide receiver group has 3 legitimate gamebreakers. More than anything else however, they have relied on their defense to set themselves up with excellent field position. They have picked off opponents 16 times, forced 10 fumbles, and are limiting opponents to only 241.3 yards of offense per game. Those numbers are forcing teams to punt or otherwise turn the ball over deep in their own territory, giving the offense a very short field to deal with.

The Ravens have followed a similar formula (wow, this is getting eerie, huh?), though they have one key advantage over the Steelers. Unlike Pittsburgh, Baltimore has not had a quarterback prone to the “Big Mistake”. Ben’s success in the past has lent himself at some times this season to try to make a play that isn’t there; he has always had a tendency to try to take the game over himself. He has held onto the ball too long and killed drives with his own pride. The coaching staff has gone to great lengths to remind Joe to throw the ball away, and the young QB has done a solid job in not making a huge game-changing mistake. Additionally, the Steelers only have their traditional gameplan- there will be nothing in this game that the Ravens defense has never seen before. On the other hand, you can rest assured knowing that Cam Cameron has something special planned for this one. He has yet to enter a game this season without a new wrinkle, and when the offense sputters, he will be ready to bust it out. I don’t expect the unbalanced line to work well against a disciplined, tenacious, and smart defense like the Steelers, but he will have something else. The Ravens run more trick plays than any other team in the league, expect to see some more of that to break the offense out of a slump.

Finally, let’s stop all piling onto the LeRon McClain bandwagon already. Yes, he is the most effective Ravens running back. If only he was effective by traditional NFL standards- his 3.7 yards per carry are woefully unimpressive even for a former fullback and a power runner. If he is the number 1 back, he will have to be more versatile. McClain has done an incredible job this season, but he is a complementary back first, and the Ravens will need more than him to run on Pittsburgh.

I have trouble seeing either offense succeeding against the other defense, and I have additional worries about the Ravens. Last week, against the #7 defense in the NFL, the Ravens offense almost stalled to a halt. With the exception of a single great drive late in the game, this attack was limited to whatever the defense happened to give them. Luckily for the Ravens, the Steelers had the same problem against the Cowboys last week. However, I have more to fear from the Cowboys than I do the Redskins.

The Rundown

This game will come down to which quarterback is able to get this team over the hump when the offense starts to struggle, as both defenses will be dominant. While Joe Flacco has been excellent this season in getting the Ravens to last-second wins, he is far from a proven commodity in his young career. While Ben Roethlisberger has struggled, he is still one of the better quarterbacks in this league. The Steelers will get timely touchdowns and while they might make mistakes, so will the Ravens. I know I should, but I just don’t trust Flacco yet. The Steelers D does the job, and Roethlisberger does just enough to win this one.

The nod goes to the Steelers, 17-13

1 comment:

Tyler Radecki said...

Tomlin has rotated Moore in for Parker a lot after Willie's injury...Willie just isn't the same. He's making too many backfield cuts. He's used to a good line that can give him time, but now, those cuts get eaten up.

Moore runs a little more north-south, and has been much more effective. Expect to see him utilized more often...especially considering Willie has never had a good game against the Ravens defense (though, how many running backs can say they have? With the exception of the Giants, the Ravens have shut down everyone). I'd rather have McClain, who can overpower people, than Willie, or even Moore, because he can punch it in from the goalline, a problem the Steelers have had all season long.