Pittsburgh Steelers Week 1 Preview: 5 Keys to Success
The winner of this Week 1 matchup will have a one-game lead in the AFC North. Both teams have a soft schedule (they play the Peyton Manning-less AFC South and the horrid NFC West) the winner could take that lead and run with it.
If the Steelers want to continue to build on the edge they have had on their biggest rivals, here are five keys to the game they must execute.
Establish the Pass
This may come as a surprise, as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ culture is all about smash mouth, run-first football. The NFL is going to a spread-it-out attack, and the Steelers have never been better suited to adapt to that style.
With Hines Ward and Jerricho Cotchery sandwiching the “Young Money” crew of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, plus tight end Heath Miller, Pittsburgh may have the most complete receiving corps in the NFL.
But relax, Steelers fans, I certainly am not advocating the Black and Gold abandon the run. On the contrary, if Pittsburgh can catch teams off guard with a dominant passing game, it will make it that much easier for Rashard Mendenhall to find holes in the defense.
If Pittsburgh can make a statement against the Baltimore Ravens’ relatively soft pass defense (21st in 2010), we could see the beginning of a 1,500-yard season Mendenhall.
It is worth mentioning, if the rain that has been beating down the East coast hits Baltimore on Sunday, I would change this key to a good old-fashioned, Pittsburgh-approved mantra of “Establish the run.”
Assemble the Offensive Line
With all that talent on offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still dependent on the performance of the offensive line. The team is set at right tackle with the return of Willie Colon, at center with the exceptional Maurkice Pouncey, and at left guard with the solid-but-unspectacular Chris Kemoeatu.
Left tackle and right guard, however, are a different story. Doug Legursky is nothing but a journeymen, who, in an ideal situation, would be the top backup at center and both guard spots. The Steelers wanted to hand the right guard spot to any number of younger players, but nobody stepped up.
Jonathan Scott started the final 11 games at left tackle last season, and will start the season there in 2011. Scott had mixed results last season, but was good enough to help the Steelers get past solid defenses in the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets on the way to the Super Bowl.
Presumably, Scott is just keeping the seat warm for rookie Marcus Gilbert, who impressed later in camp after getting whipped into shape with the help of a few choice words from his former Florida Gator teammate Pouncey.
The Ravens made a lot of noise on the line late in camp with the signing of Pro Bowlers Andre Gurode and Bryant McKinnie. The Steelers' line will have to hold up their end of the bargain to keep Terrell Suggs and company off of Ben Roethlisberger.
Shut Down Ray Rice
The Steelers did a great job of bottling the Baltimore Ravens’ premier offensive threat in 2010, as the explosive Rice combined for just 84 yards rushing, 59 yards receiving, one touchdown. The defense also forced Rice into a HUGE fumble in the playoffs.
If the Steelers’ D can do more of the same in Week 1, it will go a long way toward shutting down Joe Flacco and the rest of the offense.
Win the Turnover Battle
The Pittsburgh Steelers have repeatedly come up with clutch turnovers en route to huge victories over their AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens.
Whether it has been James Harrison strip-sacking Flacco on the way to an overtime regular season victory, a heart-breaking Flacco interception, or an unexpected Ray Rice fumble, the defense has made the big plays at the most important times.
Turnovers happening at the opportune moment are a matter of chance plus execution, which is partially out of the teams’ control. What the Steelers can control is winning the battle. Turnovers can kill any teams’ chances at a victory, and they cost this Steelers team a Super Bowl title just seven months ago.
If Pittsburgh is sloppy with the ball, it could put them on the wrong end of a one-game lead in the AFC North to start the season.
Establish the Secondary
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary received a lot of criticism in the offseason. However the notion that the defensive backfield is weak is overblown.Troy Polamalu is the best safety in the game, Ryan Clark never makes a mistake, and Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor are not world-beaters, but are solid starters.
Neither Polamalu nor McFadden would have played against the Green Bay Packers if it was a regular season game—both had injuries that took them well into the offseason to heal—and it showed, as both were just a step behind where they needed to be.
The legitimate problem, however, is behind the starters. William Gay has given up too many big plays to continue as the nickel corner. Due to training camp injuries, third-year man Keenan Lewis got a lot of work in the preseason and looked good with an interception and several passes broken up playing against opponents’ starters.
The Baltimore Ravens hardly have a premier passing offense, but if the secondary shuts down Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and the rest of the receiving corps, it will go a long way towards building confidence for the rest of the season.
The Importance of Beating the Baltimore Ravens
If the Pittsburgh Steelers execute all five keys to the game, slide number six will fall into place. For the success of the 2011 Steelers’, it is paramount to defeat the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1.
Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco has never defeated a Ben Roethlisberger-led Pittsburgh unit. His two victories have come in overtime with Dennis Dixon at the helm. If the Steelers slip up and let Flacco get his first victory, it will take a huge monkey off his back, and could lead to more confidence and swagger in future matchups.
Pittsburgh needs to keep that monkey firmly entrenched on Flacco’s back.