Ravens vs. Steelers: 9 Things for Pittsburgh Fans to Watch for Sunday Night
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have produced the NFL's most passionate and heated modern rivalry, despite playing during an era in which fated foes exchange cell phone numbers and give each other veritable bear hugs at midfield.
Serving as the antithesis of classic rivalries gone soft, the modern day "Purple People Eaters" and "Men of Steel" remind fans at least twice per year that one raw emotion can still serve as a motivator for winning football: ire.
For Pittsburgh fans, games against Baltimore provide enough ire to burn bird feathers. On Sunday Night, they will hope their Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers can simply beat the birds. The heated glare from each sideline will again be enough to put the letters of c-h-a-r into arch-rivals
If you're a fan of "real football" (and fans of these two squads know exactly what that means), you have a stake claimed in each contest, all of them another chapter in the clear precedent for modern ballgame battery.
Indeed, Steelers-Ravens is as much your mother's football game as a pink Cadillac is your janitor's mode of transportation.
It's gritty, passionate, throwback... and it's set to rekindle on Sunday Night Football.
Here are nine things for Steelers fans to watch for as the Black and Gold attempt to torch the Ravens.
Secondary vs. Ravens Passing Game
Everyone remembers vividly the sight of Torrey Smith running past William Gay. We were all waiting with anxious anticipation for safety help over the top....
.... It was help that would never come.
Smith's diving touchdown grab in the end zone would ultimately cost the Steelers the AFC North.
For Willie Gay, the nickname "Big Play" sadly went both ways, covering accomplishments made by him and against him. He is now gone, and Ryan Mundy's time spent blowing assignments earlier this season has been replaced with effective play by Will Allen.
The secondary has enjoyed great success lately. Before a final game-tying drive in regulation, Matt Cassel's Chiefs could barely complete a pass. Eight days earlier, Eli Manning had his worst game in recent seasons.
And, though his numbers suffered against the Steelers defensive backs, Robert Griffin III's anemic afternoon in the Steel City was largely the product of 10 dropped passes.
The corners, Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, have spent less time in zone coverage, a luxury that has been a more viable option with the defensive front finally getting some pressure on opposing passers. Their man-to-man performance has been, for lack or desire to use a better word, studly.
Keenan Lewis, the same corner who suffered from early season jitters and missed a slew of tackles, has made a series of great plays in recent weeks. His confidence in covering the deep pass has been obvious, with Lewis breaking up and preventing a number of downfield hookups.
Ike Taylor is showing a swag that was missing in the early weeks, Ryan Clark has been "Johnny on the spot," and Will Allen has been a wonderful change of pace (or, should I say "change from peril") opposed to Mundy.
Because he has been so effective in physical man coverage, much like his peer across the field, I'd have little hesitation to put Keenan Lewis on either Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith. Personally, I believe Ike Taylor would be able to successfully shut down Smith, in the same way he contained (or completely negated) fast, capable playmakers such as DeSean Jackson and Santonio Holmes. Besides, why wouldn't you put your best cover corner on the opposition's best wideout?
Of note, Smith has seven touchdowns, while Boldin has a lesser yards per receptions and touchdown total (1).
The Steelers will have the added challenge of stopping tight end Dennis Pitta, the only other Raven with multiple touchdowns.
However, the entire goal of containing Baltimore's skill players will become futile if the Steelers cannot stop the game's best two-way back (next slide).
Ray Rice, the Bane Back
In The Dark Knight Rises, many Steelers had cameo moments after Bane breaks Batman's back. In real life, Ray Rice is a bane back who is always a Pittsburgh back-breaker.
He's the man who deserves his own slide. Like Terrell Suggs on defense, Ray Rice is a Steelers killer on the Ravens' offense.
How many late game catches out of the backfield, including fourth down conversions, does Rice have left to haunt Pittsburgh with? Hopefully, that answer is minimalistic and doesn't encompass any playmaking over the next few weeks by the league's best two-way back.
A dual threat back, Rice is capable of gashing a suspect Steelers defensive front, particularly against the run (see: Monday Night vs. Jamaal Charles), and winning intermediate matchups against their dime and nickel packages. He is a patience runner, awaiting his block, always moving forward, and ever-able to win the race to the end zone.
Though known for his elusiveness and speed, the stocky back also possesses deceptive power, able to shed tacklers and...
Ugh! All of this complimentary Ravens talk is making me sick! (Can somebody hand me a bottle of Listerine? Apparently it kills the germs that cause gingervitis and bad breath, but can it handle Raven raving?)
Then, just when you finally keep him in check in the rushing game, he will make the key drive-sustaining reception, picking up 20+ yards and a cloud of dust!
Rice has burnt the Steelers in the past, and Cam Cameron would be wise to feed him the pigskin on Sunday Night. It will be up to the defense to step up against one of their bane backs.
The Steelers Need a Smart Game Plan from the Coaches
Mike Tomlin and crew- here's your opportunity to shine!
The coaching staff has rallied the team from an auspicious start to the season. Now, they will need to coach them through their rifest adversity, minus both of their two best players (Polamalu and Roethlisberger).
If they can win Sunday against the Ravens, they can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime in January. In a largely mediocre American Football Conference, in which only six teams have a winning record and only one other is within a game of .500, a victory will also keep teams "in the hunt" at arm's length. After all, the Black and Gold still have to make the playoffs before a (hopefully) healthier version proves their capability there.
On offense, Todd Haley needs to give Byron Leftwich some easy early throws to enable his confidence, but he'd also be wise keep the passer in the shotgun formation to help negate Baltimore's pass rush. With Leftwich's big arm, the Steelers would be wise to stretch the field with their speed at receiver, thus taking advantage of his cannon and keeping the defense off the line.
This would only further aid their goal for a balanced game plan and successful ground game, particularly if the passing game can connect downfield early.
Defensively, the key to the game start with the containment of Ray Rice, but I'd also like to see Steve McLendon (I'm beating a dead horse here) get an even higher bulk of the snaps on obvious Ravens passing downs. He's had great impact in limited playing time to-date, and he is a superior pass rusher to Casey Hampton.
Flacco or Fluke-o?
Against the Steelers, it seems as though Joe Flacco is always doing one of two things:
A) Making critical mistakes, or a singular critical late-game mistake. Troy's tomahawk chop in 2010, Troy's pick six in the '09 AFC Championship Game... (a single tear drop for No. 43's absence, eh?)
B) Playing like the second coming of Joe Montana, at the very least in the fourth quarter.
Which version shows up Sunday will be largely predicated on the Steelers' ability to get pressure. Flacco can be rattled, and the linebackers will need to do the rattling. Though the defensive front of Keisel, Hood and Hampton haven't been particularly adept against the run, at the very least inconsistent, they have opened more holes for pass rushers.
Timmons had his best game of the season last week, James Harrison is beginning to appear around the action with his previous regularity, and Lamarr Woodley certainly hasn't put up his last boot of the year. Though Deebo can't quite hit the same unbelievable angle from the ground in his pursuit around the edge, he and the linebackers have had more success at getting pressure in the middle of the line.
Getting to Flacco will be key, as the Ravens' passer is capable of being either a supreme Steelers Jekyll or hapless Hyde.
Special Teams Is an X-Factor
Negated touchdowns and untimely miscues have been a haunt for the special teams, which will need to truly be "special" against the Ravens. An undermanned Steelers squad needs every x-factor in its favor.
Luckily, one such key piece to their success has been Shaun Suisham, whose aplomb was showcased again in a perfect kicking performance against the Chiefs. This season, "Suisham Sweets" (that nickname didn't work nearly as effectively as I thought it would) has missed only once, and he has been money in the clutch.
Drew Butler, save for a few low linedrives and pair of shanks, has ably turned the field position for the Black and Gold, keeping opposing offenses at bay deep in their own territory.
In a game that many Steelers fans believe will need to be a low-scoring, knock-em-down, drag-em-out affair, points could be at a premium and field position will be a vital factor.
Suisham, Butler, and the coverage/return units will need to be effective. Key mistakes have cost the Steelers games against lesser opponents already; against Baltimore, such errors will almost assuredly be fatal.
Terrell Suggs' Endless Presence in Pittsburgh's Backfield
He's been a thorn in the Steelers' side, able to "talk the talk" and follow by "walking the walk." He's there pregame and postgame... and he's always just plain game!
Terrell Raymonn Suggs, a.k.a. T-Sizzle, can always be counted on for a classic quote prior to playing Pittsburgh, and he made headlines earlier in the week commenting on Big Ben's being ruled out.
"Until the ball is snapped, I’m still preparing as if he’s playing. Like I said, I saw the guy play on a broken ankle when he came down here, and we even broke his nose, and the guy continued to play, and if you all recall, it didn’t pan out too good for us at the end of that game. So like I said, until that ball is snapped when we’re on the field and [the Ravens offense is] off the field, I’m not ruling him out. You can never question this guy’s toughness. Guys like that are what this game is about.”
Well, maybe 2011's Defensive Player of the Year reconsidered his stance with the announcement of a potential...
Speaking of piercing hearts, here's hoping Suggs doesn't drive a stake through the hearts of Steelers fans on Sunday night!
No matter where your beliefs are relative to a confidence in Byron Leftwich entering Sunday Night, nobody can contend that Ben Roethlisberger's injury came at the worst time.
After all, the Steelers have finally seized the type of momentum that eluded them in the season's early weeks, but they're prepping to face off against a tough Ravens squad for what will likely be the three biggest weeks in the AFC North.
Todd Haley has said he will adjust the gameplan to fit Leftwich's skill set (more on that later), but even productive changes will quite possibly pale compared to the recent progress of the Big Ben-led unit. Nevertheless, the time for crying and asking "what if...?" belongs to the watches of lesser laymans. After all, when the tough gets going.... and, for the Steelers and their fans, it's time to get tough.
Still, it is hard to imagine that the offense won't take at least a minor step backward, meaning everyone must be accountable. My list of concerns heading toward the Ravens game includes more than just Leftwich's lack of game experience in recent seasons.
Truthfully, due to his successful starts off the bench, slightly better mobility, and more polished mechanics, I'd prefer Charlie Batch to get the start, but that's a pipe dream that isn't happening.
Ben's most exclusive strength is his ability to evade oncoming rushers in the pocket, a particularly useful skill against a pesky Baltimore front that features Steelers killer Terrell Suggs. Leftwich has about as much mobility as the bronze statue of Art Rooney outside of the stadium, meaning the offensive line will have to really earn its success pass-blocking. Though shotgun snaps could help buy some time against Ravens' rushers, Leftwich will need to be alert and heady, able to foresee the pressure presnap and make the correct (quick) decision afterwards.
In addition to his mobility, Ben's underrated ability to quickly deliver the football is a factor. I'm not referring to Roethlisberger's tendencies, as anyone worth their salt realizes this is not a strength of No. 7, but I'm moreso focusing on his mechanics.
Leftwich has the wind-up of a baseball pitcher, which makes him susceptible to turnovers. It also slows down the crispness and speed of a very consistent and able intermediate Steelers passing game, which has been the league's best at converting third downs and making plays all over the field.
Despite my concerns, if the line can provide decent protection, Leftwich can get a good week of work in with the starting offense, and the coaches can stay aware of his personal limitations, the offense as a whole can step up to get the job done.
A Running Back Trifecta!
The Steelers will have all three of their primary backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer) ready to play against the Ravens, but it will be Mendy that gets the start. He has the confidence of peer Isaac Redman:
"He looks like he's back to his old form. He's making all the cuts, it looks like he has his burst. So he looks good."
Mendenhall is likely the more naturally gifted back of the three, possessing a combined power, speed, and agility. However, a return game against the Ravens is a tough draw... or is it?
In truth, Baltimore's defensive front has been thrashed by opposing rushers in 2012, a week-to-week problem for a unit typically competing with the Steelers for the top spot in run defense and average yards per rush allowed.
The Steelers were in the midst of accomplishing three straight 100-yard rushing games before their game against the Chiefs, hoping that- surprisingly- Baltimore will be the tonic to get them back to their ground-and-pound ways.
If Mendenhall struggles, it will be a relief to know Redman and Dwyer are both healthy on the sidelines. Likewise, members of the offensive line have each played like a "mensch," doing their job and blocking into the second level. Willie Colon has been among the best surprises in recent weeks, showcasing why everyone was excited about his transition to guard.
Overcoming Injuries: "The Man in the Mirror"
Each and every member of the Black and Gold will need to step up in Big Ben's absence. Against the Ravens, Roethlisberger has had a phenomenal record.
Minus their franchise quarterback, the Men of Steel are 0-4 against their Maryland rival. And, as anyone can tell you, "Close, but no cigar" doesn't apply in football. The Steelers have pushed the Ravens to the limit, including an overtime loss with Dennis Dixon at the helm and a last-second loss with Batch under center (Flacco hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh), but they have been unable to overcome their archrivals in recent years without No. 7.
Hopefully, Sunday Night will mark the date when everyone steps up in their role enough, each man making that one extra contribution beyond the norm, in order to achieve victory sans Ben.
Certainly, the Ravens defense has had to do the same minus Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb. Nobody questions Terrell Suggs' early return was as much an effort to give the injury plagued defense a shot in the arm- an infusion of energy- as it was a mere timely return.
Additionally, the Ravens were without star nose tackle Haloti Ngata last weekend against the Oakland Raiders. This week, despite a sore injured shoulder, the beefy NT will suit up. For Steelers week, you make sacrifices.
For the Steelers, the offensive line will need to be that much sharper with its run blocking, the receivers (here's looking at you Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery) will need to have their best playmaking night of the year, Wallace will need to make at least one game-breaking sprint to the endzone atop his other receptions, and Heath Miller will need to win all of his favorable matchups. Then again, isn't No. 83 doing that already?