Week 4 Preview: Steelers vs. Ravens

i can haz protecshun?

There’s an old saying that you should “believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see” and that old adage applies very well to the National Football League. The Baltimore Ravens typified that saying in 2007 as it appeared that they finally had developed an efficient offense by finally finding a quality starting quarterback in Steve McNair.  They wound up giving head coach Brian Billick a four year extension and, despite losing to the Colts in the playoffs, felt they were a team on the rise after going 13-3.  But the reality was the Ravens were a team that was once again being carried by their defense and McNair more or less managed the game. By 2008 there were issues on the defense, particularly the loss of LB Adalius Thomas, trouble at cornerback, and other injuries mostly related to the advancing age of their core players. This meant that the defense was downright mediocre at times. McNair also got hurt, which meant Kyle Boller and Troy Smith time as the season spiraled down the drain.  They finished 5-11 and Billick wound up getting fired.

The Ravens surprised a lot of people by hiring one of the best special teams coaches in the league, John Harbaugh.  With limited coaching experience, Harbaugh is a very unknown commodity.  But the same could be said of a local guy by the name of Mike Ditka, who came to the Chicago Bears as a special teams coach with Dallas.  While the Bears had a great defense, they didn’t reach the pinnacle of their success until the offense became more than simply manageable.   The hope is Harbaugh can make the same improvements in Baltimore.

STEELER DEFENSE VS. RAVENS OFFENSE

There’s another old saying that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  The Ravens sacrificed their 1st round pick next year to move up and draft QB Joe Flacco.  Flacco was a redshirt at Pitt who transferred to greener pastures when he couldn’t beat out the mighty Tyler Palko for the starting job.  Then again, talent evaluation and optimal player usage aren’t exactly hallmarks of Wannastache’s tenure with the Panthers.  Flacco is every bit a clone of Ben Roethlisberger given his size and his ability to move a little and throw on the move.  I’d say Big Ben is more athletic and effective throwing while on the run (he’s had enough practice) but Flacco definitely has a bigger arm.

Flacco has made rookie mistakes but he’s shown a remarkable learning curve and while it’d be unrealistic to think he’d replicate Ben’s 15-1 rookie season, he definitely gives the Ravens their best chance at winning right now.   Still, he’s young and Steeler defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau loves young quarterbacks.   Not in the Michael Jackson sort of way.   He just loves to throw a wide array of looks, stunts, and assorted trickery at the noobs because at that point in their careers, they aren’t equipped to read the defenses and make adjustments.  Unless Flacco turns out to be a prodigy, he’s going to have a long night trying to figure out who’s coming, how many, and from where.

Cam Cameron is the offense coordinator and while I’m not a big Cameron fan, his scheme and philosophies will probably be a breath of fresh air for the Ravens. Gone is the slant happy, dink and dunk West Coast Offense and in comes a more explosive deep pass pattern offense. Expect Todd Heap to play a bigger role in the passing game as they will try to get him to attack the deep middle.

Long time left tackle and future Hall of Famer, Jonathan Ogden has retired. Ogden was built like the perfect left tackle as he was 345 pounds but not the least bit overweight as he stood 6’9” tall. He had great feet, quality technique, and good power to be an excellent drive blocker.  Their money is on second year man Jared Gaither to take over for Ogden. He was a supplemental draft pick for the team and did pretty well in limited time as a rookie.  Ben Grubbs was very good at guard in his rookie season and will likely only get better and perhaps become a top 5 guard in due time. Marshal Yanda is average at best as he beat out Adam Terry at right tackle, which isn’t something to brag about.

If he can stay healthy, WR Demeterius Williams is a player to watch out for. This guy has tremendous athletic ability and can catch the ball.  Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are pretty solid players provided the QB gets them the ball. Mason had 103 receptions last year, but only at 10.3 yards a catch which means he wasn’t very explosive.  Steeler CBs have shown solid coverage skills this season and there’s no reason to think they’ll have a hard time with this group, especially with injured starter Deshea Townshend healthy enough to at least play in the nickel.

RB Willis McGahee is a beast and given all of the injuries the Ravens had on the O-Line last year, his 1,207 rushing yards on 4.1 yards per carry is better than it looks. He’ll be backed up by rookie Ray Rice, who hasn’t shown much of anything so far this year.  I always thought Rice would be best suited to being a Mike Alstott-style fullback and his demonstrated lack of speed and elusiveness seems to have proven me correct.

The Steeler defense will be playing with a decimated defensive line as everybody’s favorite Fatass, Casey Hampton, is experiencing crotch pain, the kind antibiotics don’t help.  We all knew they were an aging group and with age comes increased injury problems.  That’s why it was so smart of Director of Player Personnel Kevin Colbert to draft a couple young DL in last year’s…

Oh yeah.  Never mind.

DE Brett Keisel will be out for at least another week which to be fair didn’t hurt the Steelers too much against Philadelphia.  DE Travis Kirschke played capably in relief of Keisel while NT Chris Hoke had a solid game when he came in for Hampton.  Hopefully they’ll be able to fill their roles as space eaters and allow our tremendously athletic linebackers to run around making plays all over the field.  The Ravens would no doubt love to establish a physical presence and a running attack early on and it’ll be up to the big boys up front to stop that from happening.

STEELER OFFENSE VS. RAVENS DEFENSE

The Ravens use a 3-4 scheme, but it’s a 1 gap scheme instead of the standard 2 gap. The Cowboys use this as well as Wade Phillips pretty much invented it while coaching under father, Bum. In many ways, it’s kind of like a modernized version of the old 46 defense. They will play some 4-3 scheme and just move Terrell Suggs to defensive end as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan definitely follows in his father’s footsteps by loving to bring the blitz.

The down linemen are about as good as it gets, starting with the incredibly underrated Kelly Gregg. He’s not that big of a guy for a nose guard (300 pounds) but he’s got a great motor and good technique. In the 1 gap scheme size is less important and he’s an even more tenacious defender. Haloti Ngata is a behemoth who wreaked havoc at defensive end last year. They’ll move him to nose tackle or defensive tackle in the 4-3 from time to time. Trevor Pryce got injured last year, but he’s always been a quality player who registered 13 sacks back in 2006.

The linebackers are still pretty good in Baltimore. Terrell Suggs has always been a quality pass rusher at the outside linebacker spot. Bart Scott is quite the beast at inside linebacker, even if he does chuck a referee’s flag. And Ray Lewis is still an above average inside linebacker, no matter how many homicides he commits. Where they saw problems last season was at the strongside outside linebacker spot as the level of production dipped greatly from Adalius Thomas, who left for New England, to Jarrett Johnson.

The Ravens are going to be stout against the run.  They have the size and speed to plug the gaps and prevent a running back from getting to that second level.  Fast Willie Parker sprained his knee late in the debacle in Philly and won’t play.   It’s time for rookie RB Rashard Mendenhall to put on his big boy pants and show us what he can do.

The good news is, his power style running might be better suited to this sort of game.  The bad news is, if Rex Ryan looked at tapes from last week, he’s going to be keen on selling out to stop the run.  At least until the Steelers offensive line can prove they can keep Ben Roethlisberger vertical long enough to complete a pass.

This is the key to the game because the Ravens cornerback play was miserable last year, although they’re leading the league in total defense so far this season. Chris McAllister, whom I swear has been around since the first Bush administration, got hurt last year and the Ravens couldn’t come anywhere near replacing him. Samari Rolle is hurt and will be replaced by Corey Ivy who is a good nickel back, but when placed in the starter’s role has not done well.  The Ravens do have an excellent safety with Ed Reed being….well, Ed Reed. When Reed is on, he’s easily the best safety in the league.   But when Reed is off his game, well, that’s when he becomes Hines Ward’s bitch.

If Ben isn’t busy running for his life, our receivers could enjoy a very productive night against that Baltimore secondary.   However, they harassed and disrupted Cleveland last week to the point they only surrendered 10 points and watching that gaping black hole that is our O-line last week, I’m not confident we won’t suffer a similar fate.

With a win, the Ravens will take a commanding two game lead in the AFC North division.  Yes, you read that right.   Before the season began, I thought there was a small chance they could be a Fab Four team.   Fab Four teams refer to the fact every season for the past ten years, four teams that missed the playoffs the previous year were in them the next.  The Ravens have a solid defense, solid running game, and a solid corps of receivers.  If their young quarterback can manage the game and make the throws when he needs to make them, I can see this team in the playoffs.  In fact, when I made my preseason Power Ranks for FSB, I thought they were a better pick than those trendy Cleveland Browns.  I guess we’ll see how much they’ve improved this Monday night.

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