2011 Preview By The Numbers: Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens

Recent History

There is plenty of history in this heated rivalry. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and for my money, there is no more contemptible team than the Baltimore Rat-birds.

Courtesy Steelersdepot.com

Suffice it to say that I do not care for the Ravens or their fans, and I’m quite certain the feeling is mutual.

This is probably the best rivalry in the NFL right now and not without reason. The teams are built very similarly, have passionate fan bases, and seem to be perennially battling for the division title. Since the divisions were aligned in the current configuration in 2002, the Steelers have won the title 5 times. The Ravens and Bengals have split the other four division crowns. The cities are kind of similar, too, if Baltimore didn’t have the rampant drug-dealing and the nearly constant threat of murder.

The Steelers and the Ravens have met 8 times in the last 3 years with the Steelers winning 6 of those meetings. Two of those games took place in the playoffs (both Steelers wins) and one was the AFC Championship game.

There is very little love lost between the players, but there is plenty of respect. Coach Tomlin likes to say, “Steel sharpens steel,” in reference to Steelers-Ravens games. These words show the level of respect he has for them.

Games between these two bitter foes tend to be especially brutal, as evidenced by the bloody broken nose Ben Roethlisberger received from Haloti Ngata in week 13 last year. As Hines Ward has stated, “They don’t like us. We don’t like them.”

The Steelers lead the all-time series, 21-12. That includes wins in all three meetings in the playoffs.

Let’s see what we can find in this classic NFL rivalry.

Baltimore’s offense vs. Pittsburgh’s defense

The Ravens drafted quarterback Joe Flacco in 2008 and seem to have found a guy they like and can win with after enduring a string of busts at the position. Flacco has a cannon for an arm, but seems to not be able to see the entire field. Whether it is play-calling, or just his own internal clock running a few seconds fast, Flacco’s favorite target is RB Ray Rice out of the backfield, and only rarely do you see Flacco unleashing a pass longer than 10 yards.

You could make a case that Rice is their best player on offense, with the decline of TE Todd Heap and the age of possession receiver Derrick Mason.

The Steelers do a good job of stopping the shifty Rice. They allowed him only 28.0 yards per game for the three games they saw him last year. That was well below his season average of 76.3 yards per game.

The Ravens offensive line seems to struggle despite lots of good talent, including Michael Oher upon whom the movie “The Blind Side” is based. Oher gave up a huge sack in that week 13 meeting to eventual Defensive POY Troy Polamalu.

The Ravens brought in a couple receivers to try to bolster the position, notably Anquan Boldin, but in the AFC Divisional round this past January, critical dropped passes helped the Steelers secure a victory.

Indeed, the additions of Boldin and WR Donte Stallworth (who was injured for part of the season) did little to improve the anemic passing game in “Charm City.” (What a laugh that nickname is. I’m just sayin’.) They did improve, but only went from 18th to 17th in receiving from 2009 to 2010. This was hardly the production they were looking for after spending $25 million to extend Boldin’s contract for three years.

The Steelers sacked Flacco 10 times in three games last year and forced four turnovers from him. Five of those sacks were in the playoff game in Heinz Field, but they still allowed him to throw for about 647 yards in those three games. That doesn’t sound like much until you recall that the Steelers played an otherworldly second half of football in the playoff game and basically shut the Ravens’ offense down.

The key to the Steelers defending the Ravens is to stop Rice from breaking off big runs, and get to Flacco. Force him to dump the ball down to Rice, and then make a sure tackle before Rice can make it a big gain.

Baltimore’s Defense vs. Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Ravens defense is starting to show signs of age, but it is still a good unit and should not be taken lightly. Future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have been joined by standouts Terrell Suggs and the aforementioned Ngata.

The Ravens are always stout against the run. Rashard Mendenhall managed 170 yards in three games against the Ravens last year. That’s good for a 56.7 yard per game average. When you consider that he averaged 79.6 yards per game for the season, you can see that the Ravens had put stopping Mendy on their to-do list.

The guy the Ravens must hate seeing, though, is Big Ben. The man positively owns the Ravens. He has won his last seven starts against them. Despite Ravens players’ protestations to the contrary, you have to wonder if Ben is in the Ravens’ heads. He just has a way of beating them.

What the Ravens do a lot, however, is sack Ben. They got to him nine times in two games last year! Of course, everyone sacks Ben because he holds the ball as long as he does. On this score, though, you have to take the bad with the good.

The simple fact is that Ben has his style and while it might induce heart trauma in a majority of the Nation, he plays that way and is successful most of the time.

Whether it is an incredible escape from the rushing arms of Terrell Suggs, or that huge pass to Brown in the playoffs, if you give Ben a chance to win the game against the Ravens, most of the time he delivers.

The Steelers mix of wily veterans and young speed guys at receiver must have Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh and his staff drinking Pepto by the case. Hines Ward (who in my humble opinion should be in the HOF someday) and Heath Miller provide the leadership, while Brown, Emanuel Sanders, and Mike Wallace provide the flash. Who do you double cover in that lineup? Any one of those guys is a threat to take a reception to the house. And the young guys are learning from the best blocking receiver in NFL history that there is more to playing receiver than catching the ball. The return of Limas Sweed from injury could add even more to the receiving corps, but only if he has taken his time off to soften those stone hands.

The Ravens defense was 21st against the pass in 2010, but they did not have Ed Reed patrolling the backfield for most of the first half of the season. Reed led the league in interceptions last year with eight, and that was after missing six games!

The Steelers were 14th in passing offense on the year, but that was without Big Ben for the first four games. The offensive line injuries probably did not help much.

There are plays to be made against the Ravens’ secondary, as long as you always know where Reed is.

Location, Location, Location

The Steelers must love playing in Baltimore. They are 8-7 all time there. When you are winning in your opponent’s building consistently, you are doing very well.

In contrast, the Ravens are only 5-13 in the ‘Burgh.

One of those wins was this past season while Ben Roethlisberger was sitting out the fourth game of his suspension. Would that game have ended differently if Ben had played? Who knows? Given that the Steelers only lost by three points, I would have liked our chances.

Of course, on the play that won the game for Baltimore, the 18-yard TD pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Ben would not have been on the field anyway.

My Take

There are so many intangibles in this matchup that it makes it hard to predict what will happen from game to game.

I truly believe Ben is in the Ravens’ heads at this point. They seem to just know he is going to do something to beat them and it is as if they are just waiting for it.

When it happens, you can almost see the shocked looks on their faces as if to say, “I can’t believe that son of a bitch did it to us again.”

A lot of this matchup depends on when the teams play during the season. The NFL has started putting a lot of divisional games at the end of the season to discourage teams from sitting their starters. (This is a move I love. I think that last three weeks of the season should be a divisional round-robin. That would make all of those games very meaningful.) That means they will probably have a late-season showdown to battle for divisional supremacy.

The Steelers love to play in prime time and they especially love playing the Ravens in prime time. This led to last year’s request by the Ravens to the NFL that they not have to play in Pittsburgh in prime time. (I laughed and laughed when I read that. What a bunch of cry-babies.)

If they have a prime time game, the odds of a Steelers win go up.

If not for the ludicrous suspension of Ben, I think the Black and Gold would be on a four-game winning streak over the Rat-birds.

It will be interesting to see what the draft and free agency bring to each team, but I have to give the edge to the Steelers right now.