(Author’s note: I never capitalize “ravens” unless it appears at the beginning of a sentence. Get over it, ravens fans.)
The dark cloud that has hung over the Steel city, and the entirety of Steeler Nation, since Dec. 30, 2012 has been lifted. In case you didn’t know, that was the last time the Steelers won a football game of any kind.
That’s a very long time. Too long.
Now, with a win over the mediocre Jets, the Steelers are back in Heinz Field this Sunday to play against the reining Super Bowl champs, their arch-rivals, the Baltimore ravens.
Know Thine Enemy
If you are a Steelers fan, you are probably more familiar with the ravens than any other team in the NFL. They are our mirror image. They are Bizarro to our Superman. They say familiarity breeds contempt. Believe you me, these teams, and their fans, have loads of contempt for each other.
To Steelers fans, the ravens fans are the obnoxious nouveau riche punk who just moved into the neighborhood where wealthy families have lived for generations. Imagine a lottery winner moving in next to the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Kennedys.
To the fans in Baltimore, Steelers Nation is the arrogant a-holes who live in the past, turning their noses up at the those who haven’t the pedigree or history they have.
To a certain extent, both sides are right.
On the field, though, which is the focus for this article, both teams find themselves in a state of flux. The Steelers, unaccustomed to losing so much and playing so poorly in the process, found a modicum of success by attacking the Jets in their depleted secondary and mixing in just enough rushing attempts to keep the defense honest.
The Steelers rushing attack is still anemic, ranking 31st in the league at 61.0 yards per game, but as we saw on Sunday (and the Patriots have proven for years), it’s not the yards on the ground, it’s simply the threat of the run that is required. Rookie RB Le’veon Bell seems to have the explosiveness of a young man. Let’s hope the Steelers can figure out a way to block for him before his rookie contract is up, or he gets hurt.
QB Ben Roethlisberger was sacked four times against the Jets, but it was what he didn’t do that was the story. He didn’t throw the ball to the wrong color uniform, and that combined with no fumbles lost, is an enormous leap in the right direction for this team.
The defense also contributed on Sunday, forcing their first two turnovers of the year and limiting rookie QB Geno Smith to 184 yards passing while sacking him thrice.
As I mentioned, though, this ravens team doesn’t come into the ‘Burgh as the world beaters everyone thought they would be. If you listen to local sports talk radio here in Baltimore, the ravens seem to lack identity on offense.
Perennial Pro-Bowler RB Ray Rice has been under-used. Even when they do get the ball to him or his bruising counterpart, Bernard Pierce, they are simply not producing. Baltimore is 17th in rushing attempts per game and 27th in rushing yards per game. At least the Steelers have the excuse of not having an super star running back. One has to wonder why the ravens are not feeding Rice who is clearly the most consistent producer on their offensive team.
To an extent, the ravens’ problems will look very familiar to most Steeler fans. Their offensive line is playing poorly, not run blocking very well and committing penalties at very bad times. The ravens had three false start penalties last week. At home.
QB Joe Flacco has apparently stopped eating whatever Pac Man power pellets he was munching on during his incredible playoff and Super Bowl run because he has thrown plenty of interceptions, including a five-pick game against the Buffalo Bills (which the ravens still had a chance to win.)
It’s no secret, even in Baltimore, that Flacco is a good quarterback, and when he gets hot, he is as good as anyone. He has a cannon for an arm and is as tough as any quarterback I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen Flacco take some savage hits and get up as if nothing happened. The knock on Flacco, however, is that he is very streaky and when he is on a bad streak of play, the ravens will have a tough time finding a way to win.
Plus, Flacco is getting almost no help from his receiving corps. Their number one, WR Torrey Smith, is more like a 1.5. On a lot of other teams, he might not even be a two. For my money, I would take Antonio Brown over Smith. WR Jacoby Jones has shown a propensity for making bad decisions when fielding punts, so you have to question his brains. And the tight ends for the ravens are old and can’t run (Dallas Clark), or can’t catch (Ed Dickson).
On defense, however, the ravens are as solid as they’ve ever been. LB Terrell Suggs is playing very well. He is fifth in the league in sacks, and his opposite, Elvis Dumervil, is T8. Between them, they have 12 sacks. The linemen on the depleted Steelers O-line will have their hands full.
The ravens are 8th in the NFL against the run, which means the pitiful Steelers running game will be hard pressed to produce even 50 yards.
On defense, there is room to work against the ravens’ pass defense (if you can keep Suggs and Dumervil off your quarterback, that is.) They are 17th against the pass in terms of yards allowed.
It felt good for the Steelers to find a way to win, and to not make nearly as many mistakes as the previous four games, but they are not out of the woods.
The running game, as I have mentioned, is virtually nonexistent. The ravens stout rush defense will exacerbate that, leaving their bookend defensive ends free to go after Big Ben.
The offensive line of the Steelers will have to play out of their minds this week, or we might see Ben leaving the game on a stretcher. The alternative, of course, is keeping the running backs and/or the tight ends in to protect Ben, but that limits the part of the game that is working for the offense. TE Heath Miller had a fine game against the Jets (6 catches, 84 yards). It would be a shame if he spent most of Sunday blocking Suggs or Dumervil instead of lumbering up the field with the ball in his soft hands.
The defense forced a couple turnovers last week, and Joe Flacco has shown that he will throw the ball to the other team, but this defense is still not hitting on all cylinders. They will still have to keep Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in check. If they get to running the ball with authority, it could be a long day for the Steeler faithful.
On top of these things, P Zoltan Mesko is a huge disappointment. The Steelers are 31st in the league with a paltry 42.7 yards per punt average. I’ve read that he set a rookie record for net punting yard average, but to me it looks like he can barely kick the ball out of his own shadow. On the plus side, he hasn’t had a punt blocked yet this year. That’s saying something considering how many punts the Steelers have attempted. Even the ravens have had two blocked this year.
Realistically, not much has changed for this team, despite the win. K Shaun Suisham is still putting balls through the uprights. The Steelers have not allowed a kick or punt return for a touchdown yet, and that is very good.
If nothing else, these things are very telling about the state in which the Steelers find themselves. When we are pointing out the play of the kicker as something to be happy about, hard times abound in the Steel City.
This is going to be a very tough game for the Mighty Black and Gold to win. Keep in mind that the ravens had a chance to win a game in which Joe Flacco threw five picks. The ravens are a proud, determined bunch, and they will not stop competing until the clock reads 0:00.
The defense is going to have to create a turnover or two while keeping Rice and Pierce in check. They will have to get to Joe Flacco, get him off his spots and force him into some ill-advised throws.
The offensive line will have to find some way to protect Ben and open up holes for Bell, Dwyer, etc. If the Steelers are forced to play max-protect for most of the game just to keep Ben from being pounded into chunky peanut butter, the Steelers will not win this game.
My prediction: ravens 31, Steelers 14