Friday, January 16, 2009

Ravens-Steelers Preview, Part 2: Steelers Offense vs Ravens Defense

Okay Ravens fans, this could be rough. Excuse me for possibly overreacting here… but did you see the Steelers on Sunday? Perhaps it was exhaustion from a grueling stretch of 5 straight “must wins” for the Chargers, but my eyes told me they came to play. They were simply beaten at the line and overcome from the first snap. Watching that football game, there was never a doubt in my mind who was the better team after seeing the physicality that the Steelers came out with. Ben Roethlisberger held onto the ball for a long time as always, but he could afford it with the protection he was getting. Nothing was penetrating that line, and Ron Rivera knew it. So by the time he held back his blitzers, Ben was already in a rhythm. San Diego’s corners were outmatched against the rested and aggressive receivers, and Big Ben did not fall into a trap of relying on one or even two receivers primarily. 6 players had receptions, and all had at least 2 catches- he completed passes to his tight end, running backs, and of course the detestable Hines Ward. It was a scary-efficient offense.

What does this mean for this weekend? A lot. No, San Diego is not as physical as Baltimore, but the ability of the Steelers to keep drives alive and extend time of possession most certainly is. Even with Chris Johnson, the Titans consistently were able to convert critical third downs, and were it not for a few timely turnovers would have finished with points every time. I don’t care how effective the Ravens have been in forcing turnovers, we shouldn’t expect the same out of Pittsburgh. Tennessee held the ball for almost 35 minutes, roughly the same as Pittsburgh did against San Diego. The Ravens cannot afford to allow the Steelers to hold onto the ball that long or they will get gauged- and this home team knows how to finish with points, having found an excellent short yardage back in Gary Russell.

But it isn’t Gary Russell who poses the greatest threat for the Ravens. After struggling with injuries for much of the season (conveniently at moments that he was playing the Ravens), Willie Parker looked like his old self on Sunday, rushing 27 times for 146 yards. He wasn’t all that effective early in the game, but as the contest went into the second quarter, Parker started to go wild, and it wound up opening gaping holes in coverage downfield. The offensive line, too, looked like it did before the loss of Alan Faneca and the 49 sacks allowed this season. They dominated the Chargers, who accrued only one sack the entire game. Sure, this defense only generated 28 sacks all season, but the Ravens only sacked the quarterback 6 times more this season, and will likely be even more tired than the Chargers were. Remember, the Ravens themselves only made one sack on Kerry Collins all game, and their exhaustion was showing from the second quarter onwards.

The Ravens were just in a dogfight of their own, and have the scars to prove it. Terrell Suggs will force the coaching staff to let him play, but the Raven’s best pass rusher will not be 100%. Samari Rolle could be out next week, leaving Frank Walker against Santonio Holmes and Fabian Washington against Hines Ward. The latter matchup is especially distressing for one reason. Without Rolle, the Ravens do not have a cornerback who is either smart enough on the field or physical enough to match up with Ward. Against the Steelers, your cornerback has to have one or the other at least. You won’t find a more adamant advocate for Fabian than I, but the man does not know how to tackle, or at least hasn’t shown it thus far this season. Meanwhile, Hines Ward has been known to elude the grasp of linebackers on a regular basis. As many of you readers would know, Corey Ivy is not very popular on this blog. He won’t be very popular with any Baltimore fan after he is matched up with Nate Washington. Washington converted several key third downs down the stretch for the Steelers, and he is their most underrated offensive threat. He has the deep speed to break down the field, but he is even better at positioning his body and boxing out defenders for first downs when the defense is keying in on Holmes, and Ward. Oh, and there is always Heath Miller, who has the receiving skills of Todd Heap, even if his blocking ability isn’t quite there yet.

If the Ravens can hold stout at the line and move the offensive line backwards, they will force Ben to throw into coverage and make a mistake. He will make a mistake- I believe Roethisberger will be even more prone to the big error than will Joe Flacco. This season, the Pittsburgh quarterback has been easily suckered into the feeling that the entire offense rests on him, and it has had two important results. Primarily, he has held onto the ball far too long waiting for the open man, resulting in sacks. Secondly, he has thrown unwisely at the last minute and turned the ball over. His 15 interceptions are second worst in his 5 year career, while his 17 touchdowns are tied for the worst- but most telling are his 7 lost fumbles that resulted from his trying to hold onto the ball in the pocket when pressure came from behind. His games against Baltimore have not been especially poor, with only 1 fumble lost, 1 interception thrown, and a passer rating that is actually slightly higher than his season average. The teams he struggled against- Philadelphia and New York Giants, most notably, were teams that were able to apply significant pressure with every snap. I sure hope Rex Ryan doesn’t have his mind on head coaching jobs and can dial up something new for Big Ben.

However, when it comes to playing the Steelers, it starts and ends with stopping the run. In 2 games against the Ravens this season, the Steelers have rushed for a combined 160 yards on 55 carries for a paltry 2.91 average. While Parker didn’t play in that opening game, it still shows the ability of the Ravens D to stop the Pittsburgh run game. The Ravens must rely on that extra day of rest they got from not playing on Sunday to get rejuvenated because if they can come out and play the way they did in the first two matchups, this defense has the potential to harass and stifle any Pittsburgh rushing attack and, while it will give up the underneath passing, could benefit from a turnover or two courtesy of Brian Leonhard and Ed Reed that could swing the balance of this ballgame. If, on the other hand, the Ravens come out like they did against the Titans, this will be a very very long game, and we will see the defense out on the field for possibly 40 minutes of this ballgame. I don’t doubt the intensity of this game; I doubt the ability of the Ravens’ bodies to hold up for 4 quarters of football after the row they have been through.

Of course, all of this changes depending on the health of Suggs, Rolle, Washington, and others. And that is exactly the problem. Pittsburgh will attack the Ravens right up the gut, trying to wear them down for the 3rd or 4th quarter before gashing them in the passing game. With a fully healthy Ravens, I wouldn’t even note this point because I have no doubt that a rested Ravens team stuff this sort of attack. When Ryan is forced to pull the linebackers and safeties in towards the line of scrimmage (as he was forced to against the Titans), it will be up to the backup corners to try to make a play- and I just don’t trust Frank Walker and Corey Ivy. If, however, the Ravens blitz starts to hit and the run is stuffed, Baltimore will get the second wind they need to dominate the line of scrimmage. Ben can be forced into mistakes. He will have to be for the defense to win out over the Steelers physical offense.

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