There may be no game more exciting these days than a good old-fashioned, hard-nosed grudge match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Both teams play defense-first style football, take pride in their running games, and, perhaps best of all, both teams have a deep-rooted hatred for each other that goes beyond just a simple divisional rivalry.
The Ravens set the tempo early as Ray Rice ran for 36 yards with their first play from scrimmage and two plays later Joe Flacco found Anquan Boldin in the endzone. The Ravens’ defense forced the Steelers to punt on their first possession and that was about how the day went for both teams: The Ravens continued to move the ball and score touchdowns while the Steelers just couldn’t seem to get anything going. In the end, Baltimore scored a franchise high 35 points against their arch-rivals and the Steelers only managed one touchdown.
The Steelers committed 7 turnovers (off of which the Ravens scored 21 points) and Roethlisberger was sacked, knocked down, and hurried all game long. Baltimore’s blitz schemes were executed and timed perfectly all game long. You’ve got to give it up to Chuck Pagano for coming up with a defensive strategy that worked perfectly against a talented Steeler offense.
It’s hard not to make comparisons when talking about these teams. They play similar styled smash-mouth football, a 3-4 defense, and a run-first offense even though both teams have a quarterback capable of putting up 300 yards a game and receivers talented enough to pick apart any defense. In these games, with the teams knowing each other so well, a lot of credit has to go to the coaches of the winning team.
Baltimore looked great. Their offensive line looked amazing against one of the best run-stop defenses in the league (Rice’s 107 yards was the first 100-yard runner the Steelers had allowed since Rice did it back in ’09). Everyone knows their defense is as strong as they come in the league, but if that O-line can move guys off the line and create lanes like they did all game long AND give Flacco that much time in the pocket, watch out for this team in the playoffs.
The weapons Baltimore has are among the best in the league on both sides of the ball. From Haloti Ngata on the line and Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs behind him, I don’t see any team having a 100-yard rusher against them all season (not to mention they have one of the best tackling secondaries in the league spearheaded by Ed Reed). The pickup of Anquan Boldin was one of the best in the offseason. He played for so long under the spotlight of Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona that people forget just how talented, and tough, this guy is. Flacco too, in my mind, is underrated. With all the talk about Rogers and Brady and Manning and Brees, Flacco continues to put the ball right on the numbers when he has to. He’s got a great arm, good mobility for a pocket quarterback, and some of the best decision-making skills in the league. I predict him and Boldin to put up some big numbers this year.
The Baltimore running game looked good against the Steelers which means it will probably look fantastic against any other team. Ray Rice is a beast who feeds on the big boys in the box. He runs hard, has good moves, and always seems to be falling forward at the end of plays (an overlooked quality that points not only to the extra yards, but to the players toughness and desire). And Ricky Williams looked good as the number two option.
The only question I might have is some of the decisions of their coach, John Harbaugh. He decided to fake an extra point FG and run it in for two when his team is up by 20 pts in the 3rd quarter, which worked out perfectly, except now you probably can’t do it again. I would have saved the trick play for a more opportune time, maybe later in the season, in Pittsburgh. And his decision to go for a 4th and one in the same quarter instead of kicking an easy field goal was ridiculous. Even if they would have converted it, it was the wrong decision. You don’t give your archrivals a chance to gain any type of momentum. You put more points on the board and put your defense back onto the field after your offense puts up points, not after it fails to convert. But this is very menial criticism of a team that played amazing against a tough division foe.
All in all the Baltimore Ravens have what it takes to get into the playoffs with a high seed and maybe go all the way. Look for them to be in the AFC championship game.
Hines Ward got into 8th place in the records book with his 955th all-time reception, jumping ahead of Randy Moss and behind Isaac Bruce, who has 1,024. And that was about the only good thing that came out of this game for the Steelers.
To be quite honest though I don’t think the Steelers have that much to worry about. This just seemed to be one of those bad games for them that happens every now and then. They actually drove the ball decently at times (Roethlisberger had 280 yards passing) but were decimated by turnovers. They are still the Steelers though, with a solid defense and high-quality offense. If there was one thing that killed them this game, it was the old tendencies of Ben Roethlisberger coming out to haunt him again.
A guy who always likes to make things happen, even when he should just throw the ball away, Big Ben has always been criticized for hanging onto the ball too long, running and taking contact when he should protect himself better, and throwing the ball up for grabs instead of taking a sack. And boy did he prove his critics right in this game. This game would have been much closer if not for the attempted heroics of one Ben Roethlisberger. Not only did he cause his team turnovers, he put his defense on the field way too long. If your offense isn’t taking care of the ball, your defense is getting tired, guaranteed. Some blame does need to go to their offensive line. They weren’t great, but when you couple the fact that they were playing one of the best defenses in the league with the fact that Roethlisberger held onto the ball long enough to do laps around the stadium, something’s gonna give.
All in all the Steelers are still the Steelers and there is no way they won’t make the playoffs this year especially since you know at least one wild card will come out of the AFC North.
But watch out for Baltimore. They may very well be the best team in the AFC.