For Ravens fans, this Sunday’s game versus the Steelers may be the most anticipated and over-analyzed game in team history. "Steelers week" is always big for the Ravens, but with a locked-out, shortened offseason and a salary cap purge, fans haven’t lacked things to worry about for the first game.
Obviously, everyone wants to win the first game. It’s a great way to start your season out on the right foot. When the season starts versus the division rival that won the division on a tie-breaker last season, it becomes an almost must-win scenario. On top of that, the Ravens will be playing the Steelers at home, so this is their best chance to knock off their hated rival.
As if there wasn’t enough pressure already, the Steelers have been very vocal with their disrespect of the Ravens this offseason. Steelers All Pro outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley and nose tackle Casey Hampton have been the two most outspoken players. Woodley said that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco wouldn’t win a Super Bowl "in this lifetime," and Hampton most recently stated that the Ravens "have to talk themselves into" feeling tough.
The Ravens players have done their share of trash talking in the past, but it’s ironic that Hampton is talking about the Ravens talking about the Steelers. There’s no doubt that the Ravens are hearing what the Steelers are saying, and head coach John Harbaugh is quietly putting each quote from the Steelers on the bulletin board in the Ravens locker room.
That being said, the Ravens will not need extra motivation heading into this game, which may be the most important season opener in team history. They know what’s at stake and they know what to expect.
"We’re playing on Sunday at one, so we’re not making any excuses," Harbaugh said at a press conference on September 5th. "We know what [the Steelers are] going to do; they know what we’re going to do. There will be a few wrinkles here and there. But, we’re just going to go play. I’m very confident in how we’re going to play."
The question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the Ravens can play well enough to beat the Steelers in this particular game. It’s no secret that the Ravens don’t have a good record versus the Steelers in recent history. It’s also no secret that the Ravens have a new offensive line that has very little playing time together.
That leads many experts to believe that the Steelers have the edge in this game since they were able to keep all but seven of their players from last season. Continuity will help them, especially with the shortened offseason, but in the first game, that effect might be negligible.
The main reason is because the Steelers don’t know what to expect from the Ravens in the first game, but the Ravens know exactly what to expect from the Steelers. The Ravens have so many new players that the Steelers need to plan for that—there’s no way they can go into the game with a rock-solid game plan. They will need to adjust in-game. This effect might seem inconsequential, but in a game that’s as close as Ravens-Steelers games usually are, any advantage is big.
Since the Steelers team is returning relatively unchanged, it’s somewhat easy to imagine how the Ravens' offseason changes could affect the game. The games last season were very close even though the Ravens offense was playing with several clearly ineffective pieces.
The offensive line was broken in those games. Michael Oher wasn’t doing a very good job at left tackle, Chris Chester was struggling to stand up to stronger defensive linemen at RG, and Marshal Yanda was forced to play RT, which is his ideal position. The offensive line really struggled all season, but particularly in those games versus the Steelers’ elite pass-rushers.
On top of that, it was clear that the Ravens receivers weren’t getting open down the field, and that just made it too easy for the Steelers, who were able to load up defenders near the line of scrimmage and keep the Ravens from running as well.
The Ravens defense played well enough in every game versus the Steelers to win the game. They made sure that it wasn’t the Steelers offense that won the game, and that’s precisely what they did. For all the credit that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets for beating the Ravens, he wasn’t the reason why the Steelers beat the Ravens. He may have thrown a few touchdowns, but many times, especially in the last playoff game, the Steelers defense would force a turnover in Ravens territory.
The Steelers defense is the unit that the Ravens need to beat in order to win. Obviously, that’s not an easy task, but the Ravens have added the pieces that they need.
The Ravens now have a new left tackle, Bryant McKinnie, and were able to shift Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda back to their natural positions on the right side of the line. If the losses last season are any indication, this alone should be a huge boost for the team.
There's no question that the Steelers pass-rush was the Ravens' biggest problem last season, and they knew it. In the second half of the last playoff game when the Steelers started down by three scores, they simply started to blitz with impunity, knowing that the Ravens were not only incapable of stopping it but also incapable of exploiting it.
Going into this game, the Ravens at least have the personnel to slow down the Steelers pass-rush and take advantage of the openings in the deep coverage with Lee Evans, the team’s newly acquired deep-threat receiver.
There’s no amount of X’s and O’s that can definitively predict who will win this game, but the Ravens should no longer be at a massive disadvantage that plays right into the Steelers game-plan. Now, they will truly have no one to blame but themselves if they lose to Pittsburgh.
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