The Pittsburgh Steelers are poised to host the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday for the 2008 AFC Championship Game. The winner goes to the Super Bowl to face the winner of the NFC Championship Game featuring the Philadelphia Eagles at the Arizona Cardinals. In this, the Year of the Risen Bird, the Steelers must feel like uninvited guests to a party of winged wildcards. Only Pittsburgh managed to earn a bye week. Only the Steelers survived the aerial assault (mostly on defense) by the Ravens, Cardinals and Eagles. Aggressive snatch and grab techniques pushed these upstarts past favored teams like Tennessee, Carolina and the defending-Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
The Steelers and Ravens will square off for the third time this season. The Steelers won at home 23-20 in overtime earlier this season. They survived a controversial finish in Baltimore and escaped with a 13-9 victory in December. Historically, the Steelers are 16-11 vs. the Ravens. These two teams have played some of the most physical and brutal games in the history of the league.
Back in September, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall was separated from his shoulder and the rest of the season by Ravens all-world linebacker Ray Lewis. Ravens defenders like Ed Reed and Jarret Johnson have been rocked to their core by Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward. Ward has been so effective that Terrell Suggs has seen fit to place a redemption bounty on Ward.
Beyond the fabled defenses which feature the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year (Steeler OLB James Harrison – 101 tkls., 16.5 sacks, 7 FF), safeties Ed Reed (only unanimous All-Pro selection) and Troy Polamalu, and the aforementioned Ray Lewis stand two quarterbacks poised to do battle once more.
For the Ravens, the man in the eye of the storm is “rookie” quarterback Joe Flacco. The new kid from Delaware appears to be a star in the making. He is the big-armed quarterback the Ravens looked for in Kyle Boller. Flacco, though, appears to have the composure the Ravens sought in discarding Boller and drafting Ohio State legend (video link) Troy Smith. An injury to Smith afforded Flacco his chance. He hasn’t disappointed. While his numbers have not been stellar, he has done two things: maintained ball security and made the occasional deep throw to loosen up defenses. In the December rematch, Joe Flacco played his worst game of the season. He was 11-28, 115 yards and 2 interceptions. He didn’t enjoy his second look at the Steelers. Odds are that his third look will be somewhat better than his dismal showing four weeks ago.
The Ravens feature the 4th-ranked run game in the entire league. It is anchored by a large, bruising offensive line and an equally punishing LeRon McClain. The nifty fullback-turned lead back led the Ravens in carries and yards in that December matchup vs. the Steelers. He racked up 87 yards on the ground and alleviated some of the pressure faced by Flacco. The Ravens also feature two excellent route running receivers (Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton) and versatile tight end Todd Heap.
The Steelers feature one of only three quarterbacks* to amass five wins versus the vaunted Ravens defense since 2000. Ben Roethlisberger is 5-2 as a starter vs. the Ravens, with both losses coming during his Season of Riding Dangerously (2006). In 5 career wins vs. the Ravens, Roethlisberger is 81-129 (62.7%) for 1044 yards, 11 touchdowns and 4 interceptions with a rating of 103.2.
The Steelers also feature Willie Parker. Parker was the league’s leading rusher in 2007 through 16 weeks, but he broke his leg in a game at St. Louis. His recovery was to be aided by the insertion of Rashard Mendenhall into the lineup. The Ravens scrapped that plan for the Steelers and forced an adjustment which was not completed until Week 17. The Steelers dipped from 9th in scoring a year ago to 20th this season. The rushing attack fell from 3rd in the league to 23rd. For the first time in a long time, Willie Parker looks healthy. He ran for 146 yards vs. the San Diego Chargers in the Division Round of the playoffs last week.
The Steelers may not be well-suited to run well against the Ravens. Historically, even though the Steelers have had big lineman, they’ve used counters, traps and other types of pulling plays with very little success vs. Baltimore. Reports out of Pittsburgh were that Willie Parker convinced Bruce Arians to go to a Zone Blocking scheme vs. the Chargers. The zone blocking scheme allowed Parker to hit holes quicker and make decisive runs. The line supported him by getting effective double-teams on Charger NT Jamal Williams. The huge difference between the Ravens and Chargers is that SD does not have two run stuffing linebackers like Ray Lewis and Bart Scott.
*Note – The last player to rush for 100 yards vs. the Ravens was Larry Johnson (KC Chiefs) back in Week 14 of 2006.
Since 2006, most teams that have had success on the ground vs. Baltimore (100+ yards) have featured multiple backs with contrasting styles (Chris Johnson and LenDale White, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, Sean Alexander and Maurice Morris) or a zone blocking scheme (Tatum Bell in Denver; Vick and Dunn in Atlanta; Addai and Rhodes in Indy; Travis Henry and Vince Young in Tennessee. The Steelers may not trust Gary Russell to provide that change of pace attack, and so will rely on zone blocking schemes and seek to approximate the success of others. The problem? Neither Parker nor Mewelde Moore are “pile movers” and tend to play with a higher pad level that allows them to be tackled more easily when running in traffic. (Both, of course, are magnificently elusive in “space” … the very thing the Ravens don’t give you.)
The Steelers know the Ravens are not the Chargers. There are no secrets between these teams. There is no love lost and the winner will be determined between the trenches and between the ears. Turnovers may not be a factor in this game. The teams have played even in head-to-head contests this season. The game may well be decided through the air, where contrary to popular opinion, the Ravens have been decidedly weak against certain players.
Since 2004, the Baltimore Raven defense has been ranked sixth, fifth, first, sixth and second in overall defense. (Only the Steelers have been better: first, fourth, ninth, first, first.) The legacy of that defense goees all the way back to the Super Bowl team in 2000. However, for all of their success since 2000, Baltimore has had some very surprising regular season failings against 3 QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer.
These three QBs have a combined regular season record of 15-8 vs. the Ravens. In the post-season, only Manning has faced the Ravens. He won a 15-6 slugfest en route to the Super Bowl (and did not perform well at all).
In the five wins vs. the Ravens, Roethlisberger has a 62.7 completion percentage and 11 touchdown passes. He’s thrown 4 interceptions. His rating is 103.2.
Manning and Palmer have been even better. Manning has a 66.8 completion percentage (103-154), 1307 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and only 1 interception. That interception was thrown in 2002. In his last two games vs. Baltimore, Manning has thrown 7 touchdowns and no interceptions. He has a rating of 114.3 in his 5 wins.
Carson Palmer has been unbelievable. In his 5 wins vs. the Ravens, he has completed 71.5% of his passes for 1,397 yards and 10 touchdowns with 2 picks. His rating is 114.6. Palmer has been injured more frequently since his run-in with Kimo Von Oelhoffen in the 2005 Wildcard game, and has had some terrible games vs. the Ravens as well. The 2008 season opener was one such game (9-24, 94 yards, 1 pick). Nonetheless, Palmer has been more successful than not vs. the Ravens. That is a claim that very few players can make.
Perhaps what is most striking about these numbers is that Roethlisberger, Manning and Palmer have significantly outperformed their career averages in wins vs. Baltimore. Their concentration, attention to detail and execution has been razor sharp in those 15 wins. They’ve produced amazing results. That level of production over a full season is simply not possible – and its no guarantee of success on Sunday. Can you imagine?
259-413, 3341 yards, 35 touchdowns, 13 interceptions. Rating 103.2.
330 – 493, 4182 yards, 35 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. Rating 114.3
362 – 506, 4470 yards, 32 touchdowns, 6 interceptions. Rating 114.6
Caveat: If the Ravens had the benefit of a balanced offense in these games, these numbers would probably look very different. Big-armed QBs who do not turn the ball over have had success against this intimidating and formidable collection of players.
Ben Roethlisberger has two career losses to the Baltimore Ravens. Both losses occurred during his worst season as a professional. They occurred during a season in which he and Bill Cowher were the only two people in America who thought he should not have been benched. Prior to his motorcycle accident, and since the beginning of the 2007 season, Roethlisberger is undefeated as a starter vs. the Baltimore Ravens.
His numbers vs. the Ravens in those wins suggest he is capable of having a productive game. While quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer play alongside elite wide receivers like Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Chad Johnson, the Steelers have had consistent production from only Hines Ward.
For the Ravens to win this game, they will need to SCORE on defense and/or getting touchdowns from their passing game. It would be wholly uncharacteristic of the Steelers for that to happen at this time. For the Steelers to win, Willie Parker will need at least 20 carries. I believe if he can average as little as 3 yards per carry, that will be sufficient to carry the day. I expect Roethlisberger to have a solid game and make a few deep throws throughout the game.
I believe the Steelers to be the more rested team. The Ravens bye week was moved to Week 2 this season due to weather in Texas. The team hasn’t had a week off since September. The Steelers defense was run down after several tough games and it showed as they yielded 100+ yards on the ground to New England, Baltimore, Tennessee and Cleveland to close out the season. Only Dallas (95), with backup Tashard Choice, failed to eclipse the 100 yard mark. The Steelers rebounded from this slide to hold the San Diego Chargers to a mere 15 yards on the ground. In Baltimore’s last five games, teams have rushed for 91 (Pittsburgh), 92 (Dallas), 118 (Jacksonville), 52 (Miami) and 116 (Tennessee). Ed Reed’s after the whistle effort to crack the back of Chris Johnson was successful in getting the speedy back out of the game. Only the Dolphins, led by a weak-armed QB incapable of keeping the Ravens defense honest was unable to have success on the ground. The trend is clear. The Ravens are a fatigued team that may be just a step slow on Sunday.
(It is worth noting that the Ravens are ranked 11th in scoring. The defense scored 6 touchdowns and created short fields for many more. Were it not for the prowess of the defense, the Ravens would probably rank around 22nd in the league in total scoring. The offense was ranked 18th in yards. Perhaps the Ravens should take a page out of the Chargers book and go deep early. The plan needs to be different than the first two games.)
Question: Name the last team to beat another team three times in the same season?
2002 Pittsburgh Steelers. 3 wins, by 3 points each game over the Cleveland Browns.
Score: Pittsburgh 33, Baltimore 13.
(Note: Last week, I predicted Pittsburgh 42, San Diego 17. Actual score: Pitt 35, San Diego 24.)
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Addendum: The Ravens finished the season with 5 blow out wins over Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Washington, Dallas and Jacksonville. Baltimore blew out Miami in its first playof game for the second time this season. Only the Steelers and Titans played Baltimore closely.