On Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) take on their arch-rivals the Baltimore Ravens (2-0). In their last meeting, the Ravens defeated the Steelers 27-21. The Ravens have won 4 of the last 5 meetings, but the Steelers lead the all-time series 14-10.
The Ravens are coming off a big division win, having defeated the Cleveland Browns 28-10. The Steelers, on the other hand, are coming off a 117-6 loss to the Eagles………..What’s that? It was only 15-6? Wow, it sure seemed like 117-6. Oh well, I stand corrected.
This is a big game for both teams, as they battle for AFC North supremacy. Moreover, it is a battle of two teams that genuinely seem to hate one another. We all understand that fans in Pittsburgh are genetically programmed to hate the Cleveland Browns. However, Steelers vs. Browns stopped being a true rivalry the moment Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore. Since that time, a game against the Browns is essentially a guaranteed win for the Steelers. Contrarily, the Steelers-Ravens game has emerged as the true rivalry game on the schedule. When the Steelers meet the Ravens, the outcome is always uncertain.
One thing that IS certain when these two teams meet is that defense is going to be the focus of the game. Both teams boast strong defenses, and merely adequate offenses. Moreover, both teams live and die by the same philosophy; run the ball, and stop the run.
The Ravens enter the game with the NFL’s #1 ranked defense, allowing only 161.5 total yards per game. The Steelers are the NFL’s #2 ranked defense, averaging only 234.0 yards allowed per game. The Steelers are #2 in the NFL this year at stopping the run. Their stingy defense is only allowing 64.3 yards per game. The Ravens defense is #3 against the run, allowing only 70.0 rushing yards per game. The Ravens are the #2 scoring defense in the NFL, having allowed only 10.0 pts/gm. The Steelers defense is 3rd, allowing only 12.7 pts./gm. Finally, the Steelers defense has allowed only 1 rushing touchdown this season, while the Ravens “D” has allowed none. Did I mention that this was going to be a defensive struggle?
Both the Steelers and the Ravens are known for running conservative offenses that primarily run the ball. Based on the defensive numbers that I just presented, that may be a tough thing to do this week.
The Steelers’ offense is going to be further hampered by the loss of starting running back Willie Parker, who is sidelined with a knee injury. In his place, rookie Rashard Mendenhall will make his first NFL start. Mendenhall was the Steelers 1st round draft pick this year, but he has seen little action since the pre-season. So far, he has only accumulated 10 regular season carries.
The Baltimore Ravens’ defense hasn’t allowed a 100 yard rusher in 21 consecutive games, dating back to December 10, 2006. That is the longest current streak in the NFL. How many of you believe that Rashard Mendenhall is going to break that streak in his first NFL start? Neither do I.
Since the running game will probably not be able to carry the Steelers this week, they are going to have to rely on the passing game, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was treated like a tackling dummy last week by the Eagles’ defense. I’m sure that the aggressive Ravens defense has watched those tapes closely and hopes to do the same thing. Remember, in November 2006, the Ravens’ defense had one of their most dominant performances ever against the Steelers. In that game, they sacked Roethlisberger 9 times, and intercepted him twice, en route to a 27-0 blowout in Baltimore. They’d love nothing more than to have a repeat of that performance.
In order to prevent that, the Steelers offensive line is going to have to give Big Ben much more time to find his receivers than he got last week. But Ben is also going to have to take more responsibility by getting rid of the ball quicker.
After last week’s game, I am assuming that Steelers Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians made the team practice quick slant routes to Hines Ward, and short passes to Heath Miller. Quick hitting plays like those will keep the Ravens’ defense honest, and prevent them from bringing the house on every play. If the Steelers are going to win, it is going to be up to Ben Roethlisberger to read the blitzes, and to react accordingly.
The Ravens recorded 5 sacks last week against the Browns. I’m sure they are itching to get even more sacks against the Steelers.
When the Ravens are on offense, they are going to have challenges of their own. They are starting rookie Joe Flacco at quarterback. To date, Flacco has faced the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense, and the Cleveland Browns’ defense. Neither of those defenses is in the same class as the Steelers’ defense. In those two games, Flacco has never passed for more than 129 yards. Moreover, he has never before faced the exotic blitz schemes that Steelers Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau is going to throw at him. By the end of the game, I expect Flacco to be very familiar with James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Troy Polamalu.
The one thing that will help the Ravens is that the Steelers will be missing three starters on defense. Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is out with a groin pull. Defensive end Brett Keisel, and cornerback Deshea Townsend are also out. Hampton and Keisel make up 2/3 of the Steelers’ defensive front. That’s hard to replace.
The Ravens have an all-time record of 4-6 on Monday Night Football. They were 0-3 on MNF in 2007. The Steelers, on the other hand, are 13-0 at home on MNF dating back to 1992. Last year they crushed the Ravens in a Monday night game at Heinz Field (38-7). They also beat the Ravens on MNF in 2005 by a score of 20-19.
I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d say put your money on the Steelers. My prediction is Steelers win 13-6 in a defensive struggle.