Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens: A Litmus Test for Their Front Offices
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The playing style is unapologetically old-school physical football. The front offices, headed by Kevin Colbert, general manager of the Steelers, and Ozzie Newsome, in the same role with the Ravens, are models of eschewing splashy free-agency signings.
They prefer to develop their own players through savvy drafting and excellent coaching. And perhaps most crucially, each team stands in the other's way on the path to the AFC North Championship, and ultimately the Super Bowl.
There is another interesting parallel that is particularly relevant this week. Both teams have young head coaches who are undefeated thus far in the opening game of the season. John Harbaugh is 3-0, Mike Tomlin 4-0.
Obviously, that is going to change for one coach on Sunday, unless they manage that rarest of beasts—a tied game. Luckily, Donovan McNabb isn't playing, so that shouldn't be too great a possibility.
The Steelers would appear to have history on their side. Their eight consecutive season-opening wins is the longest in the league. They have won 40 season openers in franchise history, the most of any AFC team.
But history would also say that they have only an infinitesimal chance to win the Super Bowl this season. Only one team that lost a Super Bowl has come back the following season to win it—the 1972 Dolphins, who capped a perfect (14-0) season with a Lombardi. So maybe we should just pass on history for the moment.
As similar as the two franchises are, they have diverged in a rather important way this season.
As tends to be their wont, the Steelers signed their battle-tested veterans. The Ravens, on the other hand, let some of their storied free agents walk, including playmakers like Todd Heap and Derrick Mason.
The Steelers opted for old age and cunning—the Ravens for youth and enthusiasm.
The differences are not huge, but they are significant. The Ravens began last season at number five In the league in average player age—the Steelers were number two.
This year, while still older than the median, the Ravens are younger than the Steelers in every category except offense. They are No. 9 overall. The Steelers begin this season as the oldest team in the league.
This has not been missed by the talking heads. While conceding that continuity and chemistry will be especially important this season, many pundits feel that the Steelers defense in particular is too old.
There is no doubt that, in football terms, it is a group of elder statesmen. The average age of the defense is 31.
But many, including Dale Lolley, view the age factor as a positive. He quotes DE Brett Keisel:
"There's four of us on the defensive line who have been together for 10 years with the same coach. I don't think there are very many teams, if any, like that. It's great to have been with these guys for that long. We know how to work with each other and enjoy being around each other. That's what's special about this locker room."
James Farrior looks at it this way:
“It’s good to have guys with a lot of experience on the team...We love the group. Even though we’re getting older, I think we’re getting a little better. With age comes wisdom.”
Mike Tomlin, while not concerned about the age of his defense per se, does admit that he has to play them judiciously. Teresa Varley of Steelers.com reports: “The one thing that Tomlin does acknowledge as far as age goes is he manages playing time, making sure he rotates players in as he feels it is needed.
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'I do, but I also do it for guys in their 30’s on the other side of the ball,' said Tomlin. 'That’s what coaches do. We try to provide our team with what it is they need to perform and perform at a high level. It is different for some guys than it is for others for a variety of factors. Age just happens to one of them... '”
The Ravens, meanwhile, have gotten younger than the Steelers in every category except offense. (They are the tenth-oldest offense, while the Steelers are the 13th-oldest.)
Some commentators hail this youth movement as the factor that is finally going to put them up over the Steelers once and for all.
But letting so many of their vets walk could also come back to haunt them, at least early in the season. Greg Rosenthal commented: “[T]here’s no denying the Ravens are making an interesting gamble by getting younger and faster through the roster. The same is true at wide receiver and tight end.
We think the youth movement will pay off in the long run, but it could lead to some growing pains early in the year."
Mike Tomlin acknowledges that the Ravens have made changes that could give the Steelers some problems on Sunday. "I'm probably a little more uneasy as usual when we play these guys because they've got so many new guys that we have to account for. At this juncture in this series, they probably know more about us than we know about them."
But it isn't just the disadvantage the Steelers are at in terms of familiarity with the players. He went on to say "Ozzie and company have been active in the offseason improving their team. It's evident watching the preseason tape with some of the various new guys they have to play key positions."
The 2011 season will be an interesting way of comparing the two philosophies, especially considering that it represents a something of a change for the Ravens. We will also find out whether, as the old adage has it, “Old age and cunning will win out over youth and enthusiasm every time.”
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