Baltimore Ravens: Why Baltimore Will Duplicate Their Week 1 Performance
With just a few hours until the Ravens and Steelers square off on Sunday Night football, many fans in both cities are wondering if week one provided a preview or answers to tonight's contest.
The answer is yes, and if you think the Baltimore Ravens 35-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers to start off the season was a fluke, think again. Baltimore dominated Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, and in the process handed Mike Tomlin his worst defeat as Steelers head coach.
The Ravens ran up the score by faking an extra point into a successful two-point conversion, they continued to throw deep passing routes with a 28-point lead, and simply kicked the Steelers while they were down all day long.
After beating the New England Patriots at home last week, Pittsburgh has won five in row and are once again considered the best team in the AFC.
Many are once again raving over Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger as he recorded his second consecutive 300-yard passing game for just the second time in his career. However, Big Ben is not alone in what he accomplished against New England. He was the sixth quarterback in the last seven games to throw for 300 yards against Bill Belichick’s defense.
Like the Ravens, the Steelers have played a relatively week schedule in 2011, as the Patriots were just the third team with a winning record Pittsburgh played this season. The Steelers were 0-2 prior to playing New England, and aside from losing to the Ravens, dropped a week six contest in Houston.
The rivalry between Pittsburgh and Baltimore may be the best in professional sports. It's not as old as the Yankees and Red Sox, or Duke and Carolina, but it is certainly more physical. Tonight's contest marks the fifth straight season that one of the two games has appeared in prime time national TV.
You may remember some of those moments from the past few years—most notably the hits, clean or dirty.
Last year there was Baltimore's big defensive lineman Haloti Ngata breaking Ben Roethlisberger's nose. During a decisive win back in 2006 on MNF, Hines Ward crushed Ed Reed, causing the all-world safety to leave the field. In week one this season, Jarrett Johnson delivered a little payback to Ward as he seemingly broke the veteran wide receiver in half as Ward was trying to get out on a pass pattern.
No hit epitomizes the series more than the one Ray Lewis laid on then-rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall on Monday Night football in 2008. Before the game, Mendenhall texted Ravens running back Ray Rice to tell him he was going to have a "big day" against the Ravens. In the third quarter, Lewis broke Mendenhall's shoulder, ending the rookie's "big day" and his season. The hit, unlike many others in the series, was clean.
Mendenhall also took a viscious hit in the Steelers week one loss this year from Haloti Ngata, causing a fumble.
The dirtiest hit, or play, in the series occurred back in 2004 when Ravens tight end Todd Heap injured his ankle near the end of the first half. Instead of coming off the field, Heap limped to the line of scrimmage. Knowing that Ravens QB Kyle Boller was going to spike the ball, Heap saved the Ravens a timeout by not going down and staying on the field.
On the snap, everyone pulled up as teams when do when they know the QB is going to spike the ball. All except for Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, who pushed Heap backward. Heap fell over in pain and would go on to play in just a few games during the season.
Ironically, both are now teammates in Arizona. Last season may have provided the most drama as the Ravens had the ball and the lead with a little less than three minutes remaining in the game. Then, like he was shot out of a cannon, Troy Polamalu blitzed Joe Flacco from his blind side and forced a key fumble which led to the Steelers game-winning touchdown.
Including the playoffs, the Ravens are 13-21 all time vs. the black and gold, and despite the 28-point win by the Ravens in September, the games over the past few seasons have been close. A field goal, or missed field goal, usually decides the game.
The average margin between the winning and losing team has been under five points (4.7) in the last eight games prior to this season. Just three points has decided each of the last four regular season meetings before 2011.
The Ravens have swept the Steelers just once in their history. That occurred during the 2006 season, when Baltimore beat the Steelers by a combined score of 58-7 during their two meetings. With a victory tonight, the Ravens have a chance to duplicate that feat, and here are the reasons why they will do just that,
Joe Flacco Is Comfortable Facing the Steelers Pass Rush
After playing the worst six quarters of his NFL career, spanning a Monday night loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a putrid first half vs. the Arizona Cardinals last week, Ravens QB Joe Flacco was starting to draw comparisons to former Baltimore QB Kyle Boller.
However, Flacco rebounded to lead Baltimore to their biggest comeback in franchise history with a great second half and seems to have found a comfort zone with the Ravens sugar-huddle hurry-up shotgun offense.
I am personally not a big fan of the fourth-year signal caller, but it is not because of his play vs. the Steelers in recent games. Flacco has in fact stood tall against the ferocious 3-4 blitzing scheme of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau.
Despite throwing for an average of 214 yards over the last five games, Flacco has eight touchdowns with just two interceptions in his last five games against Pittsburgh. Despite not creating many turnovers with only two interceptions this season, the Steelers continue to possess one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
Pittsburgh has held their opponents to an average of just 171 passing yards this season, and no team has thrown for more than 257 yards in a game. Last week they held the one and only Tom Brady to 170 net passing yards, almost 181 below his season average.
The Ravens offensive line had their best game of the season vs. the Steelers in week one and will need to duplicate that feat tonight if Flacco is to be successful. That is a big "IF", especially when you consider their struggles of late.
Flacco will take advantage of a less than opportunistic Steelers D that has forced a league-low three turnovers. The Steelers are very banged up where it matters most in a 3-4 scheme, at linebacker.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley has been ruled out, James Farrior is banged up, and James Harrison is returning tonight after missing the last four games with an eye injury. Flacco threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in Week 1 and while he may not duplicate the three touchdowns, he must duplicate the mistake free performance.
Flacco has become increasingly comfortable in the pocket when facing the Steelers, and I look for more of the same tonight.
Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson Will Combine to Have a Big Night
Note Heaps block on Polamalu
Ravens tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson will greatly affect the outcome of tonight's contest. Joe Flacco will look for his two tight ends early and often tonight. This season, the two have combined to catch 44 passses for 418 yards.
When used properly, tight ends have been known to give the Steelers defense problems. Tom Brady used his tight ends on a regular basis to gain yards on the Steelers defense.
During the Patriots win over Pittsburgh last year, Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski five times for 72 yards and three touchdowns. Although the Steelers held Brady in check last week, Gronkowski again went off for 94 more yards.
The Pats defense could not stop the Steelers offense, as Pittsburgh had an almost 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession.
Back in week one, Baltimore's tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson had a good day underneath the Steelers secondary. They combined for 104 yards on seven catches and a touchdown.
More importantly, both were used as extra protection against the Steelers pass rush, and made a big difference as Flacco stood upright for most of the day. He was sacked just once with a patchwork O-line playing in front of him.
The Ravens used Todd Heap last year in Pittsburgh to beat the Steelers. Remember the block he laid on Troy Polamalu during the winning touchdown pass with 37 seconds remaining in the game? After Heap left the game on the opening drive in December, the Ravens offense was very ineffective.
Without Heap in the December contest, Polamalu was able to finish his blitz, and the rest is history.
Dixon and Pitta are good, athletic pass-catching tight ends, and both will have chances to make big plays tonight. With the injuries the Steelers are facing on defense, the middle of the field should be open, especially when you consider one of the DB's will be running downfield with the Ravens speedy Torrey Smith on every other play.
The Baltimore Sun's Matt Vensel breaks down even further how the Ravens will employ their tight ends tonight in this article.
Ben Roethlisberger Will Continue His Week One Struggles vs Ravens
Ben Roethlisberger is as hot as any QB in the NFL. Last week he threw for 365 yards and two touchdowns vs. the worst defense in the NFL. He was able to sit in the pocket at times and pick apart a hapless New England secondary completing 36-of-50 passes.
Big Ben has completed almost 70 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and just two interceptions vs. the 27th and last ranked defense in the NFL. However, against three top-10 defenses this season, the numbers do not look quite as formidable.
Roethlisberger has completed just 53 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and seven turnovers (four INT's, three lost fumbles) vs. the Ravens, Texans and Jaguars.
Roethlisberger is blessed with perhaps the best receiving corps in the league with wide receiver Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders (out tonight), and veteran tight end Heath Miller. The Ravens will need to be careful, as Pittsburgh can and probably will make a big play.
Although Roethlisberger is 10-4 including the playoffs vs. Baltimore, his numbers appear to be headed south against their defense. He will be looking over his shoulder tonight as both he and the Ravens defense have the number 25 in common.
Roethlisberger has been sacked 25 times, which is the most of any QB in the NFL, and the Ravens are second in the league with 25 sacks. Last week against the Patriots, he was sacked five more times, and will be looking for his biggest nemesis tonight, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Suggs has 15.5 career sacks vs. Roethlisberger, which is more than any other defender in the league. Unlike last season, the Ravens can afford to blitz the passer this year. Baltimore's pass defense is the third best in the NFL, holding opposing QB's to 174 passing yards per game.
Even with Pittsburgh's great core of receivers, this is Baltimore's year. Look for Roethlisberger to struggle tonight, and if he has to throw 50 more times this week, it will be a long night for the Steelers.
Ray Rice Will Breakout on National TV in Pittsburgh
Over the last 58 games, the Pittsburgh Steelers have allowed just three 100-yard rushing games. Two of them belong to Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Rice’s struggles vs. Pittsburgh last season were put to bed when he rushed for 107 yards during the Ravens' week one win. Speaking of last year, Rice had just 84 yards on the ground in three games vs. the Steelers—combined.
Rice knows every hole and crack in the Steelers defense and he will expose it tonight. Rice began immediately in week one when he ran left for 36 yards on Baltimore's first play from scrimmage.
The Steelers are expecting the Ravens to come out and throw the ball after Joe Flacco executed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's no-huddle diesel package to perfection during the second half last week.
That could bode well for the fourth year back from Rutgers.
Flacco threw the ball all over the Arizona Cardinals in leading Baltimore to their largest come from behind win in franchise history. However, once the Ravens got to the goal line, Ray Rice took over with three rushing touchdowns.
The Steelers are the Steelers and running on them will not be easy, but behind fullback Vonta Leach, the Ravens offense can play as physical as the Steelers defense.
The Ravens will need to establish Rice early tonight. How he performs each week in the Ravens offense determines what Baltimore can and cannot do. He is as valuable to the Ravens as Marshall Faulk was to the Rams.
So far, Rice has been the team’s MVP. With 862 yards, Rice is sixth in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, and his seven touchdowns are tied for fourth best in the league.
Rice could also be used as a decoy tonight, opening up a few long plays down the field. I would love to see a fake screen pass to Rice only to watch Flacco chuck one 60 yards to Torrey Smith.
If Rice is bottled up tonight and the game is left on the arm of Flacco, the Ravens could be in trouble.
Even if the Ravens and Ray Rice outrush the Steelers, victory is not guaranteed. In the five games the teams played in 2009 and '10, the team with the higher run yardage total lost three of them.
However, with a younger, quicker offense, and a banged up Steelers defense, Rice should be able to get past Casey Hampton and into the next level. How effective Pittsburgh can be with their injuries remains to be seen. Based on their week one performance, I like Rice’s chances to have that big, breakout national TV game.
If tonight's game becomes a battle of field position, I like the Ravens chances even more, especially when you consider Sam Koch is averaging 46.8 yards per punt and has put 11 of his 20 punts inside the 20-yard line.
The Steelers will be using a familiar face in place of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who was placed on injured reserve with a meniscus tear in his right knee. Jeremy Kapinos takes over following Sepulveda`s latest injury to his right knee. Kapinos did the same last December after Sepulveda tore the ACL in his right knee in Baltimore last December.
This could be significant for the Ravens as they look to jump-start their punt return unit. In a game that is usually decided by a field goal or less, the Ravens have the clear edge. Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff is 17-for-20 this season on field goal tries, and his three misses have come from 50-plus yards. Last week Cundiff hit the game winning chip shot to complete the Ravens comeback with no time remaining on the clock.
Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham is 13-for-18 on field goal attempts this season. He replaces Jeff Reed, who missed several critical field goals during the Ravens win in Pittsburgh last season.
Typically, this game has featured a trick play or fake kick on special teams. Do not be surprised to see either team try one or the other in tonight's game. Remember, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh used to be special teams coordinator in Philadelphia.
Intangibles and Prediction
The Steelers have a big edge over Baltimore in the intangible department. Pittsburgh is looking for revenge after the 28-point drubbing in Crab Town and are playing this one at the big ketchup bottle with the ugly yellow seats.
The Steelers seem to be playing their best ball of the seaspon, and the Ravens their worst. Baltimore was one half away from losing their second straight game to a one-win team last week. Meanwhile, the Steelers were busy dismantling the AFC's best team (in some circles), the Patriots, for their fifth win in a row.
Pittsburgh has the hotter quarterback, and considering Joe Flacco’s struggles in big games, should be an easy lock to cover the three and a half points tonight.
None of this will matter as the Ravens built this team to beat the Steelers, not the Jaguars, Cardinals or Jets. Baltimore cut Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, and others to get younger and quicker than their hated arch-rivals.
Back in week one, the Ravens offensive line pushed around the Steelers front seven. While the Steelers are a more experienced group, the average age of their starting front seven that day was 31.8 years. The youngest Pittsburgh player to start up front was 25-year-old Lawrence Timmons.
This all matters, as the Ravens will look to do the same tonight. Yes, experience still matters, but the Ravens are the better team, and all of the moves they made will once again shine through as Baltimore completes the sweep.
With how well these two teams know each other, athletes, speed, and playmaking ability will matter. For my money, there are more of them wearing purple this season. Joe Flacco will throw two touchdowns, and Ray Rice will add one on the ground. Look for the Ravens defense to continue to torture Big Ben and snag three or four more turnovers.
This is the Ravens year, and despite playing badly the last two weeks, will beat the Steelers tonight.
Prediction: Ravens 31 Steelers 17