Are you ready for some football? Are you ready for some payback to the team that knocked us out of the playoff hunt a year ago? Are you ready for an announce team so bad they make you long for the glory days of Joe Theisman and Paul McGuire? If so, I guess you’re ready for Steelers-Ravens on Monday night.
This is by far the biggest game for the Steelers this year. The Ravens are 3-2, one game behind us overall but two behind us in the division. Still, with a game against resurgent Cleveland next week, the importance of a win here cannot be overstated. A loss and the entire AFC North becomes a veritable free-for-all.
This is also the biggest game in Mike Tomlin’s young coaching career. Under Bill Cowher, the Steelers used to ignite under the Monday night spotlight. Cowher was up near the top in most MNF wins, including something like 9-0 in home games. We’ll see if Tomlin can continue this trend of excellent play when the eyes of the entire Steeler Nation are upon him.
If you believe the Ravens will ever have an explosive offense under Brian Billick, you probably also believe Britney is a natural blonde. In both cases, we’ve seen a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Even Ray Lewis this past week took to defending his coach’s play calling by saying, “You can’t make oranges be peaches. It doesn’t change. It will never change.” Nice to know Ray doesn’t just shoot you in the back, he stabs you there as well.
To be fair, he does have a point. This week Billick is starting Steve McNair, who has been thoroughly unimpressive this season. McNair actually hasn’t played well since that disastrous playoff game last year where Peyton Manning did everything he could to lose, only for the Ravens offense to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sure, McNair has a reputation as a “Stiller Killer” but Kyle Boller has been the better QB this season. Amazingly, after waiting three years for him to develop before giving up, it takes being demoted for him to finally rise to the occasion.
The distressing news for the Steelers is that DE Aaron Smith did not practice at all this week and is doubtful for the game. My co-blogger, John, posted an interesting article about Troy Polamalu being overrated a few days ago. Troy is a talent but I definitely think he’s overrated in the sense Smith means far more to this defense than he does. Without him, a mediocre nobody named Kenny Watson ran up almost 90 yards on the ground last week.
The bad news? The Ravens have a fella by the name of Willis McGahee. If we allow him to romp through the giant holes the Bungles had last week, it won’t matter if Tee Martin starts for the Ravens.
Steelers Offense vs Ravens Defense
Here we have Ali vs. Frasier. Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan. The irresistible force vs. the immoveable object. We have the league’s leading rusher, Fast Willie Parker, vs. the league’s best rushing defense. Who will win?
I think the Ravens. I expect the Ravens will play Fast Willie like teams have been playing him since the Arizona game; stacking the box and daring Ben Roethlisberger to throw. Tomlin knows this is the league-wide “blueprint” for playing his team, which is why he had Ben come out throwing against Denver. Parker really didn’t have much going against Seattle or Cincinnati until after they loosened up the defense by throwing the ball effectively. Since Baltimore’s defense is far better than either of those two, I expect them to have even more success stopping the run early.
Which is why this game comes down to Big Ben and his receivers making plays. Offense coordinator Bruce Arians made news this week when he talked up Raven’s safety Ed Reed by saying, “I personally think he’s the best. I love Troy and I think he’s good, but Ed is really good.”
Reed is a talented safety, no doubt. But like many great players (Rod Woodson used to drive me crazy in this regard), he is more than willing to take chances to make the big play even if it means there’s a good chance he’ll give up the big play. Last year, I remember seeing him do a lot of wacky things like coming out to where the weak side slot receiver was and standing across from him like a nickel cornerback. Then, before the snap, he would sprint to where the deep strong safety would be and make the play from there. He gets a lot of accolades because people fall in love with his big play ability, forgetting about the bad ones which result when his superior athletic ability can’t cover for this type of freelancing.
The key to the Steelers scoring points will be if Ben can successfully target him and expose this flaw in his game. This is a pretty big if because I’m sure Ben still has nightmares from last year where we got the Ike Turner Handshake two games in a row. By the end of the second game, a 31-7 pasting, Ben looked liked an epileptic kid who just got off the Phantom’s Revenge. Roethlisberger is usually a tough guy but it was the first time I ever saw him totally shellshocked, literally collapsing into the fetal position whenever the Ravens threatened to crash in on him. In order to win this game, Ben has to forget about last year, put it all behind him, and make some throws in order to loosen up the defense. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be a long night for the Black and Gold.