Ahhh yes, it is that time of year again. The best time of year. The time of year where it is time for the best rivalry in the NFL to take center stage. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time again: the Baltimore Ravens against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a brutal, heavyweight, in-division fight- the impact of this game will be felt early and often down the line.
If the Ravens win, they are suddenly 3-1, including 2-1 on the road, and 2-1 in division- sitting pretty atop the AFC North in a 3-way tie with the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.
If the Steelers win, they are suddenly 4-0 without suspended star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger- a turn of events that almost nobody outside Steeler Country predicted in the preseason.
Crucially, this game will occur at Heinz Field, where those annoying yellow towels will be making an impact on the game.
Despite Cincinnati's victory over Baltimore two weeks ago, I would make the case that the winner of this game is suddenly in the driver's seat in the division, as Cincinnati's offense has yet to really take flight this season.
Games against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers excepted, the same has held true for both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but the two rivals can each lay claim to the best defense in the NFL: the Ravens are No. 1 in total yards allowed, while the Steelers are No. 1 in points allowed.
Anyone who projects something other than a defensive slugfest is delusional. The keys to this game can be found within.
Okay, you have a point... Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, and he will do his best to take away the Ravens' top offensive threat. Through three games, that has clearly been WR Anquan Boldin, and especially with RB Ray Rice slowed by injury, the Steelers' top priority becomes containing Boldin, who caught 3 TD passes from QB Joe Flacco last week against the Cleveland Browns.
Ray Rice was effective against the Steelers last year, accounting for over 200 yards of total offense in two games against Pittsburgh, but it seems unwise to assume that a full-strength Steelers defense can be beaten by one man alone.
Anquan Boldin was brought in to be that guy to make big catches on third down in the middle of the field and bail out Flacco under pressure. If the Ravens can keep the chains moving and minimize turnovers, they have a good chance to win this game. To do that, though, they will need Boldin to earn his paycheck against a tough Steelers defense.
Over the last two seasons, the Steelers have managed a 4-1 head-to-head record (including playoffs) against the Ravens, and the chief reason for this has been the play of suspended Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Say what you will about his character, the guy is flat-out good at his day job, and he's given the Ravens' defense fits.
Luckily for the Baltimore defense, they are catching Pittsburgh without "Big Ben" in this game, the final one for which he is suspended, and say what you will about Charlie Batch, but it isn't hard to figure out that, despite his strong performance against Tampa last week, he is no Big Ben.
That puts the onus on the Steeler running attack, headlined by RB Rashard Mendenhall, to lead the offensive attack and at the very least set up the play action. If the Ravens are able to completely stuff Mendenhall, they will be able to pay special attention to Pittsburgh's most dangerous big play threat, WR Mike Wallace, and take him out of the game, forcing Charlie Batch to beat them with dink and dunk throws that probably won't result in a lot of points.
If Mendenhall has a big day, however, similar to the one that Cleveland Browns RB Peyton Hillis was able to reel off last week, then the Steeler play action game becomes much more effective, and the Ravens are a lot more likely to get beaten deep- and in this defensive battle, one big play might very well be enough to win the game.
Another week, another tough matchup for the Ravens' offensive line, in particular their tackles. Sure, there are several other matchups that also will have a tremendous impact on the game- for example the Steelers against Haloti Ngata.
However, the war between Ravens OTs Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda against Steelers OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, in my view, will probably have a greater impact on the game than any other individual battles.
A major reason for Pittsburgh's success against Baltimore has been Pittsburgh's uncanny ability to score a defensive touchdown off of a Joe Flacco turnover, either a pick six (Troy Polamalu) or a fumble return (Lamarr Woodley after a James Harrison strip sack). In both cases, the turnover usually comes as a result of pressure on Flacco, and in a defensive game like this, priority No. 1 is ball security.
The team makes the fewest mistakes will probably win this game, but the Ravens have to protect Flacco in the pocket. Under duress he has not been especially good, but with time he can make all the throws and he is accurate. If Pittsburgh has a defensive weakness (a big if), it is probably their cornerbacks, so given time, Flacco just might have a good game.
If he's under pressure all day? Well, there might be a Pittsburgh defender in the end zone before it's all said and done.
Going into the season, the Ravens were getting a lot of love from the national media. Several prominent magazines, including Athlon and Lindy's, picked the Ravens to win this year's Super Bowl.
All of these predictions assumed that Joe Flacco, entering his third year in the NFL, would be able to take a step forward and not necessarily carry the team, but certainly add to it- he wasn't going to be a game manager anymore.
Well, Joe, the next level for you is to beat the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, especially when you're head to head against Charlie Batch and not Ben Roethlisberger.
If Flacco has a good day (read: throws a TD pass and doesn't turn the ball over), I think the Ravens are almost a lock to win this game, given that it will almost certainly be a defensive struggle.
The problem is, Flacco is still only two weeks removed from the worst game of his career, a 4 interception effort against the Cincinnati Bengals, and he's had a tendency in years past to make key mistakes- a disturbing trend that has continued into this year.
In his career, Joe Flacco is 3-11 against playoff teams.
That is just not going to cut it anymore. He needs to step up- now- or the Ravens will lose this game.
Much like there's a lot of pressure on Flacco, I wouldn't expect Charlie Batch to have an easy game tomorrow, but if he does, then it's similarly an easy call. If Batch can protect the football and make key conversions, the Steelers offense will be able to stay on the field and move the sticks. Batch is nothing if not experienced, but having said that, there is a reason he is a backup quarterback in the league, and whatever Steeler fans may tell you, it isn't purely because he wanted to play in his hometown- it's because he couldn't hack it as a starter in the NFL.
If he has a good game, the Steelers are almost a lock to win the game.
If he and Flacco both have good games, then...
well, never mind. Don't worry about it, it won't happen. The QB that plays better will put his team in a much better position to win the game.
I've focused a lot of attention on Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace, who I think will be the Steelers' two offensive keys (unless you count blocks, in which case it's Hines Ward). However, if and when the Steeler offense gets down into the red zone, their biggest threat to score is TE Heath Miller, who matches up favorably against most of the personnel the Ravens will probably assign to cover him.
Mind you, this is only if you're desperate, because I don't actually think Miller will have a big game. But of all the receivers in this game not named Anquan Boldin, who you're clearly starting regardless of matchups after last week, I think Miller is the one most likely to get in the end zone.
He's a deep sleeper, and while I like his chances more even than Mike Wallace, the Steelers will have the best chance to win if they can establish the run- Miller might not get a lot of targets.
Sometimes it's bias, and yes, I know that Donovan McNabb is coming back to Philly as a member of a division rival this week. However, that game is really a mismatch- this one is a dead even heavyweight fight that could turn on one single big play because, quite simply, there may only be one big play in this game.
There isn't a bigger game in the NFL this week than the Ravens and the Steelers, and the fact that it's a rivalry game only adds to the game's appeal.
For the Steelers, this game is a chance to go 4-0 without Ben Roethlisberger. No one, and I mean NO ONE who wasn't a Steeler fan actually predicted that, but now it's all right in front of them- and with the bye next week, Pittsburgh has 2 weeks to work Big Ben back into the offense before a game against the Cleveland Browns, who probably could not even beat a high school team. In other words, if the Steelers get through this game, they become the clear favorites to win the AFC North. If they lose, they face the prospect of going to Baltimore to try and salvage a draw from the season series- a place where they have only won once in their last seven tries.
For the Ravens, this is an opportunity to go to Pittsburgh and actually win, something Baltimore has not done for many years, notably because Ben is out. If the Ravens win, they will be 3-1, and likely in a 3-way tie for the AFC North division lead, assuming Cincinnati beats Cleveland. If the Ravens lose, they fall to 2-2, likely in third place in the AFC North, chasing both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, having already lost to both on the road.
Translation? Winning the division from there would be a tall order, and the Ravens might be contending for a wild card spot already after only the NFL season's fourth week.