What did Super Bowl XLVII teach us on Sunday night? If you said that Flacco is finally an elite quarterback, you would be Ray Lewis stab you in the chest dead wrong. If you said that Ray Lewis and the Ravens are favored by Himself Almighty, you need either stoned or cleaved in two. No no, my venomous friends of Steeler Nation, if there’s anything that the Super Bowl (and the Ravens playoff run) taught us is that defense is the path to beating the Ravens. And, with the Ravens sitting two seasons in a row at the top of the AFC North, that should be priority #1 for the Steelers on the ol’ ‘How Do We Improve?’ checklist.
Let’s get one thing straight. Flacco is NOT an elite quarterback. ‘But, Craig, you’re a Steelers fan and you hate the Ravens. Of course you are going to say that!’ First part of that statement is true. The second is not – when I write for this blog, I call a spade when I see one, and I give credit where it is due. Joe Flacco earning ‘elite’ status from this Super Bowl win or playoff run is seriously incorrect. As Kimmy pointed out in her Monday morning rant, Flacco should be slipping some extra cash to his offensive line and receivers for bailing him out four straight games. Flacco was as good as he was because of his offensive line and speedy receivers that burned their coverage numerous times a game.
Which brings me to the first point – Pass Rush. Over the course of four playoff games, the offensive line gave up only eight sacks. The majority of those were a result of huge pocket collapses in which Flacco had no time to react. If there’s something we can all take away from the Flacco era of this Steelers/Ravens rivalry is that Joe Flacco breaks when the heat is on. If he even feels pressure, he usually tries to break out of the pocket (and into the arms of a pass rusher) or throws an inaccurate ball. The problem with the four playoff games is that pressure came infrequently, and Joey usually had plenty of time to let Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones get wide open. The more Flacco gets protected, the more comfortable he becomes. Such is the case with most decent QB’s. The reason why he’s been able to hit receivers on those occasions where he escapes the pocket is because Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Jacoby Jones played lights out football in finding open areas and making star corners look like a bunch of high school level chumps. Did you see how Flacco would just chuck the ball into the air?
The Steelers pass rush was pretty bad this season. No player racked up over ten sacks. In fact, the highest was six by both Timmons and Harrison. And LaMarr Woodley? Four. $61 million for four sacks. Awesomesauce. The pass rush needs to severely improve next season. All the linebackers need to find ways to get around the edge or find seams in the middle. The defensive line plays a huge role in this by needing to take up two offensive linemen. Whatever line combo offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell dreamed up during the playoffs worked like a dream and probably won’t go away next season. For the Steelers to hope that they can stand tall with the Ravens next season and beyond they will need to make sure that they can get pressure early and often on Flacco. Otherwise, the receivers will carve up the secondary all game long. The same holds true for just about every game the Steelers play in 2013. Get that pass rush on, or you’ll find yourself 8-8 for another season.
The second point is turnovers (and capitalizing off them). The Ravens were pretty efficient in the turnover ratio during the playoffs, and most importantly they capitalized off of them just as efficiently. The Ravens had a turnover ratio of 10 to 4 for a +6 in the playoffs. They scored two TD’s off of those turnovers against the 49′ers on Sunday to help pave their way to the Lombardi trophy. Defense does indeed win championships, especially when that defense can create turnovers. The Ravens were 7-2 when they had the turnover edge in the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs. Did I mention that defense wins championships? Timely turnovers are momentum changers, and that is a huge part of the game – fighting for it and fighting even harder to keep it.
The turnover or ‘splash play’ was about as elusive as sacks were for the Steelers D in 2012. The Steelers only had 13 turnovers after Week 15. They somehow found a way to grab seven more in the final two games against the Bengals and Browns (no surprises there), which inflated that number a bit. 20 turnovers. The regular season ratio was 20 to 30 (and that’s including that eight turnover debacle against Cleveland) for a difference of -10. The ‘splash play’ was fairly non existent for the Steelers. Every time we all found ourselves saying ‘Man the Steelers could really use a pick right here’ or ‘A fumble deep in the zone would be huge’ the opposing offense would either deny us our wish or ram the football straight down our throats, through our butts, and into the endzone. Someone hand me some Preparation H – the H stands for ‘HELP!’
Remember when the Steelers used to get splash plays by the handfulls against the Ravens? The tide has shifted in this department, and the Steelers have been finding themselves on the wrong end of that stick for the last four games against the Ratbirds. The last four games, the Steelers have been crushed in the turnover department 3-15. Even in the Charlie Batch win of Game 2 of the series the Steelers found themselves turning the ball over one time more than the Ravens. I think the days of Polamalu coming up with an unbelievable QB strip fumble or interception or chase down fumble are just about over. I think we’ve become a little too accustomed to that kind of defense. But there are ways the defense can improve its turnover ratio and needs to if they want to find themselves contenders in the division.
Pass rush and turnovers go hand in hand. One affects the other, and are critical to the style of defense Dick LeBeau draws up every week. Last season, fans harped all off season long that the draft needed to focus on the defense. And, now this season, most are hoping for a boost in offense. I couldn’t disagree more, and the Steelers front office should be keeping the first two to three picks focused on the defensive side of the ball. I have confidence that the offense will find its groove now that they have a season under their belt with Todd Haley. The talent is actually there. However, the defense continues to age sans grace, and there are many positions and players that need addressed – for this upcoming season and to pave a way back to the Super Bowl.