John Eisenberg - Baltimore
The rivalry between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers conjures vivid and powerful images. Do you think NBC will promote its broadcast of Sunday night's game with shots of flowers and bunnies? I don't think so. This is tough man's football.
If you put the teams' names together Ravens-Steelers and play word association, what comes to mind? I'm seeing a dark and stormy night, bodies colliding, helmets flying, a baseball-like score inching upward with every field goal. I'm seeing a rugby scrum of a game, running backs slamming into brick walls, every yard grudgingly yielded.
But while all of that smash-mouth stuff is accurate in part, certainly sells well and will be on display Sunday night, the reality is the Ravens are going to have to excel at (horrors) Fancy Football to beat their rivals for a second time in 2010.
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Break out the flowers and bunnies!
The Ravens are going to have to pass the ball over the Steelers, not run it through them, in order to win.
All signs point to this, starting with the fact that the Ravens' running game has been reduced from a load-carrier to a mid-sized vehicle this year. Baltimore is ranked a ho-hum 14th in the league in rushing. I've waited and waited for that modest pace to pick up, for the Ravens to go back to relying on the run as they always do, but I've realized that transformation isn't coming. While they still run it plenty, they're becoming a team that lives by the pass.
That's probably a good thing, seeing as they're averaging just 3.7 yards per carry this season down a full yard per carry from a year ago. Whew, talk about a significant statistic flying under the radar. One reason the Ravens are passing more is they're just not running as well. They're still grinding out decent enough production, but they lack explosion. Their longest run of 2010 is just 30 yards.
Part of the issue is what's happening up front. The entire right side of their line had to be reconfigured at the last minute because of Jared Gaither's back injury. Michael Oher is in his first year on the left side and, frankly, having just an OK season. Now, Chris Chester has been out lately after battling an infection, and Oher is questionable for Sunday because of a knee sprain. That's a lot of transition.
Throw in the fact that the Steelers have the league's top run defense anyway, yielding just 64 yards per game, and it becomes clear where the Ravens need to attack. They need to go after a Pittsburgh pass defense that is ranked 22nd in the league.
Yes, that's where ball-hawking safety Troy Polamalu lurks, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has become pretty careful, especially at home, where he has thrown one interception in the last calendar year. That's the Ravens' ticket, no question. It's simply a myth that they're going to try to grind the Steelers down with their running game.
The development of the Ravens' passing game has been, well, a process. The addition of receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh was supposed to bring fireworks, but there was clearly an early adjustment period, and there are still times when the whole thing just goes dark for awhile. But the Ravens are becoming a big-strike passing team.
Last Sunday, they scored on a 65-yard pass from Flacco to Todd Heap and a 12-yarder to Derrick Mason. The week before in Carolina, it was a 56-yarder to Houshmandzadeh on their second offensive play. Against Atlanta on Nov. 11, Flacco fired three touchdown passes in a second half rally. The week before that, he tossed a 34-yarder to Boldin.
Nine of the Ravens' past 11 offensive touchdowns have come on passes, including those strikes of 65, 56, 34 and 26 yards.
Smash-mouth offense? I don't think so. The Ravens have joined the NFL's air parade, and with three accomplished veteran receivers flooding opposing secondaries on many plays, and Ray Rice as the safety valve, they're doing pretty well with it.
If they can beat the Steelers with it Sunday night and grab control of the AFC North, no one around here will mind that it's Fancy Football.
John Eisenberg covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.