Quick, name the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Michigan and Ohio State? Yankees and Red Sox? Celtics and Lakers? The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin?
Excellent choices. However, for my money, nothing can compare to the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Let’s face facts, football is not only the national pastime but the national obsession. And the marquee match-up is undoubtedly Ravens-Steelers.
You want competitive games? Since 2008, six of the seven matchups have been decided by four points or less. The last four regular season games have been decided by a field goal. The combined score (including playoffs) of the two teams since 2004 is Steelers 232 Ravens 238. It doesn’t get much closer than that.
Let’s talk big stages. In 2000, the Ravens won their one and only Super Bowl. The following year, the Steelers knocked the defending champions out of the playoffs. In 2006, the Steelers were coming off their sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens crushed them twice, including a 31-7 thrashing on the next-to-last week of the season which effectively ended any post-season hopes.
Competitive games? Check. Big stakes? Check. Best rivalry in all of sports? Check.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs. RAVENS OFFENSE
Joe Flacco must wake up in a cold sweat screaming when he thinks about facing Troy Polamalu. When you evaluate these games, each team’s strength pretty much cancels out the other team’s strength. Both defenses dominate, neither team runs the ball, one or two crucial mistakes make the difference. And those mistakes have usually been made by Bert. Against the Steelers, he has only 6 touchdowns against 11 turnovers and has been sacked a whopping 23 times.
The Ravens have a fantastic receiving corps. T.J. Housyourdaddy won the first meeting with a last second TD catch, Anquan Boldin had the Ravens lone touchdown in their last meeting. Derrick Mason and convicted murderer Donte Stallworth also had big catches in each of the first two meetings against a suspect Steelers secondary. Despite all that, it still wasn’t enough.
Baltimore upgraded the receiving talent but at heart they remain a conservative offense. That’s because Bert Flacco, for all his improvement, is still a glorified game manager. He still relies on a strong running game led by Ray Rice and short safe dump-offs to Rice and Todd Heap. Heap was injured in the last meeting between the two teams so handling him will be of tantamount importance for a speedy linebacking group led by Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison.
Last week against the Chiefs, the Ravens offense came out chucking the ball. And that resulted in a sputtering offense which held a slim 10-7 halftime lead. In the second half, Kansas City mistakes and a two-pronged attack of Rice and Willis McGahee exploded for 20 points. Can the Ravens run on the Steelers? 62.8 says no. That’s how many rushing yards per game the D allowed this season, the lowest mark in over thirty years.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs. RAVENS DEFENSE
If Bert has been the Ratbirds albatross in the rivalry, Ben Roethlisberger has been our rabbit’s foot. Over the last nine meetings (including playoffs) between the two teams, the Steelers are 6-3. The two headed monster of Darlie Baxon is 0-3. Big Ben is 6-0.
While the Ravens finished with the 10th overall ranked defense, they are no where near as dominant as in their heyday. During the regular season, they gave up big passing plays on an alarming basis. Against KC, they showed a distinct weakness against the run. If you don’t turn the ball over, you can drive on them. Coming off his best TD-INT ratio of his career, Ben’s last pick came against the Ravens way back in week 13.
While Baltimore has two fast young corners, Mike Wallace is faster. He got open in both games only for our patchwork line to break down or Ben fail to connect on that big pass play. Also, we saw how the Steelers offense sputtered when Ben’s favorite target, Heath Miller, was injured. Heath missed a large part of the last game thanks to an attempted decapitation. Barring yet another Ravens cheap shot, he’ll be there in full force this week.
I’d advocate running the ball to shorten the game and keep things close but Rashard Mendenhall had a pathetic effort last time against the Ravens. He runs scared, no doubt influenced by Ray Lewis breaking his collar bone in 2008. If he shows the same lack of testicles this Saturday, I wouldn’t hesitate to give bruising Issac Redman some carries. Red Zone has proven to be a more than adequate change of pace back.
Of course, everything hinges on the play by the big boys up front. Last time, LT Jonathan Scott was owned by Terrell Suggs. Pro Bowl backup Maurkice Pouncey also had his worst game of the year trying to deal with Haloti Ngata. The line has been playing better of late albeit against less-than-stellar pass rushes. I wouldn’t presume to think they’ll keep Ben completely clean but if they can improve on their previous effort by even a bit, it will pay huge dividends. The Ravens rely on pressure to cover for their weakness on the back end so if the line can provide more than one millisecond of protection, there should be plays to be made.
T-Sizzle called this game “World War III.” And, loath as I am to agree with him, the description is apt. These aren’t the kind of games you win, they’re the kind you survive. So sit back and enjoy another chapter in this classic rivalry. Just don’t sit too close to the television or you might end up with a nose as crooked as Big Ben’s.
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