After playing the Baltimore Ravens three times last season, including an epic AFC Championship game, it’s safe to say the Pittsburgh Steelers know this enemy quite well. And if familiarity breeds contempt, these teams must outright hate each other by now. Pittsburgh sports has a number of great rivalries, including Pitt-WVU who meet later today in their annual Backyard Brawl. But I dare say none can compare to the Ravens and Steelers.
Earlier this week, the FOX medical drama “House” made a joke of the fact Omar Epps is a dead ringer for head coach Mike Tomlin. In an ironic twist, Tomlin probably spent a lot of time this week thinking he was trapped in a medical drama. The Steelers are getting absolutely hammered by injuries to key personnel. Where’s Dr. House when you need him?
For those keeping score at home, Travis Kirschke continues to nurse a torn calf although he practiced this week and will probably play Sunday. Of all the guys we could get back, Kirschke is the least important since Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood were doing a pretty good job in his absence. LG Chris Kemoeatu sprained his MCL and looks to be out one, possibly two, weeks. Undrafted rookie Ramon Foster will make his first NFL start. Ben Roethlisberger has been monitored all week and seems to have practiced normally so should be cleared to play. Finally, Troy Polamalu will reportedly miss a month with his knee injury which probably rules him out of at least the next two games.
The Ravens will be dealing with some injuries of their own. Their best LB (sorry Ray Ray), Terrell Suggs, is out with a knee injury thanks to a heroic chop block by fabulous Brady Quinn. One of their main corners, Fabian Washington, tore his ACL and is gone for the year. Keep in mind this defense no longer has LB Bart Scott or S Jim Leonard, who went to the Jets this off-season along with mastermind D coordinator Rex Ryan, their new head coach. The Ravens are going to be a hard-nosed football team no matter what but they are definitely weakened and depleted on the defensive side of the ball.
Offensively, Joe Flacco has taken another giant step forward from his already highly successful rookie campaign. Last season, they tried to protect Flacco and keep him out of situations where the game rode on his shoulders. This year, he’s been asked to shoulder more of the load and responded to the challenge. Still, the Ravens remain a run-first and ask-questions-later team. Flacco has the ability but Baltimore is lacking in quality targets for him. Last year’s top receiver, Derrick Mason, is 35 and coming off shoulder surgery. If a team can effectively stuff the run, the Ravens run into trouble because their passing game seems limited to big play threat Mason and short safe outlet throws to emerging superstar RB Ray Rice.
Offensively, the story will be how Big Ben rebounds from last week’s brain rattling hit. I would hope the Steelers try to lean a bit more on the running game to spare him unnecessary abuse. Baltimore will have no qualms about dialing up the pressure and considering we’re playing with a banged up offensive line, one would think this is a good time for Bruce Arians to rein in his Flying Circus. Of course the words “logical playcalling” and “Arians” seldom belong in the same sentence.
Finally, heads have rolled on the Steelers special teams unit. CB Keiwan Ratliff and LB Donovan Woods have been cut. Woods was just promoted from the practice squad as an alleged upgrade to the kick coverage but his only notable achievement last week was to get flagged to nullify a beautiful 35 yard punt return by Stefan Logan. With the injury to Troy, they’ve used Ratliff as a safety in nickel and dime packages in addition to special teams. Regardless of where he’s played, he’s constantly out of position and missing tackles.
Your newest Steelers are LB Rocky Boiman and CB Corey Ivy. Boiman is an eight year vet who won a Super Bowl with the Colts back in 2006. I don’t know anything else about him except he’s got a cool name. Ivy played the past three seasons for the Ratbirds so we know him. He was someone the Steelers repeatedly picked on as well as being the doofus that Limas Sweed obliterated in the AFC Championship game. Regardless, their primary job will be to run down the field and make a lousy freakin’ tackle. Hopefully they’ll succeed where others have failed miserably.
Believe me, the Steelers will need to be on their game in all three phases Sunday night if they want to escape with a win. I know I’ve typed the words “Biggest game of the season” several weeks in a row but in all seriousness, this game is the season. If the Steelers lose, they fall into a tie with the Ravens (one game behind with the tiebreak) and will be tied or a game behind three or four teams in the Wild Card race. More importantly, a loss and I fear the team will mentally pack it in for the year. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
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