Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Steelers Versus Ravens in the Octagon

The two most physical teams in football will meet at mid-field on Saturday afternoon, shake hands and then try to kill each other for the duration of the 2010 rubber match. In their last contest, Terrell Suggs had a bloody mouth that made him look even more intimidating, Haloti Ngata broke Pig Ben's nose, a development that delighted Raven's coach John Harbaugh, and Troy Polamalu went all Chuck Norris on Joe Flacco's throwing arm. It was quite the bout.

T-Sizzle (known to his mama as Terrell Suggs -- although, I don't know, maybe she call's him T-Sizzle, too?) has declared that this game will be Armageddon. The teams hate each other. And I know this to be true because Hines Ward said so. The pundits have stopped just short of declaring that this football game will be as bloody as the Battle of the Bulge (and for that we should all be thankful), but one thing seems to be clear -- the forecast for the game, with all due respect to the peerless Mr. T., is pain. Pain with a chance of agony, to be specific.

So, given the tone and timbre of the conversation in the sports-talk-ocracy, I thought a boxing style tale of the tape was in order, by unit, but first, a quick note about the dominance of these teams. Since 2000, never has a year passed without either the Steelers or the Ravens (or both) in the playoffs. The Bengals are pretenders, the Browns an afterthought. The Steelers and Ravens ARE the AFC North.

The Ravens are 12-18 against the Steelers, but in the first three years after landing in Baltimore, the franchise was a hot mess and went 1-5 against Pittsburgh. Starting with the 2000 season, the Ravens record against the Steelers is 10-12, pretty evenly matched. Each of this season's games have been decided by 3 points. These teams are familiar and similar, which probably accounts for the bad blood. In the playoffs, the Steelers have faced the Ravens twice, winning both (2001 division game and 2008 AFC Championship.) I guess this game is Round Three in more ways than one.

QUARTERBACK: Joe Flacco is by far the best QB the Ravens franchise has ever had and after just three full seasons, he is already the team's all-time leading passer, which is maybe more an indictment of the crap-ass quarterbacking that's gone on Baltimore for the past 15 years than anything else. Flacco is talented, big, strong and can launch the ball. He is 4-2 in the post-season lifetime, a stat made more impressive when you note that all of those playoff games have been road games. Still, in the 2008 AFC Championship game, Flacco threw a momentum swinging pick-six to Troy Polamalu; in the last meeting between the teams, he failed to recognize a blitzing Polamalu, leading to a fumble and the Steelers winning touchdown.

Flacco has never beaten the Steelers when Pig Ben is on the field. Pig Ben's problems all come off the field because on the field, he has an amazing resume: undefeated regular season as a rookie, two Super Bowl rings, about 20 comeback wins in his back pocket, and a post-season record of 8-2. His QB rating is higher than Flacco's (this season and also lifetime), and while he does take some risks running around like a chicken with its head cut off, he plays extraordinarily well in the post-season.

OFFENSIVE LINE: I've written tomes about the faulty, leaky Steelers line, so at first blush, I thought I'd be giving the nod to the Ravens line no questions asked. Upon further review, this is closer than I might have guessed. The Ravens have allowed 40 sacks this year and left tackle Michael Oher can be beat on the first step by a speed rush. He can also be goaded a bit; the guy retaliates and, depending on the officiating crew, this could cost his team on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Steelers O Line, though upgraded at center (Maurkice Pouncey's presence has made the whole line better) has been decimated by injury, so they've constantly shuffled bodies in and out. Given all the givens, they've done better than I would have expected, but they're not reminding anybody of the 1990's Dallas Cowboys line. If you believe in statistics and such, this Wall Street Journal story is an interesting statistical breakdown of offensive line play.

RUNNING BACKS: I love Ray Rice. I'll admit it. I do. I think the kid is terrific. He ran for 1,220 yards with five touchdowns, averaging an even four yards per carry. He hasn't fumbled once this season. And he's a nice outlet to catch passes out of the backfield. Willis McGahee is a great alternative for the Ravens; he added 380 yards and five more touchdowns.

Rashard Mendenhall has very quietly asserted himself in the Steelers offense, rushing for nearly 1,300 yards this season and, more importantly, adding 13 touchdowns on the ground, something very sorely missing from the Steelers offensive attack last year. Despite the fact that Issac Redman has looked sharp in his rare appearances, has averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and the fact that Bruce Arians keeps saying he's going to use him, they just don't use him often. Redman's game winning touchdown in Baltimore was a play designed to go to Mewelde Moore, but they didn't get the personnel swapped out in time. Luckily, because I really don't think that Moore powers into the endzone in that situation the way Redman did. He is a nice weapon to have at their disposal if they choose to deploy him Saturday.

WIDE OUTS/TIGHT ENDS: Todd Heap and Heath Miller are two of the best all-around tight ends in the business and while Miller is a bit better blocking, Heap is more of a deep receiving threat. Both have missed time with injuries, but when healthy, either guy can turn in a huge game for his team.

On the outside, the Ravens don't have anybody who can match the speed of Mike Wallace. But then, other than the Eagles, who does? So there's Mike 'The Flash' Wallace and old reliable, Hines Ward as the possession' receiver, as it were. Rookie Emmanuel Sanders has developed as a threat for the Steelers, but coach Tomlin is not a fan of youth, so one bone-headed move out of him, and Antwan Randal El will be in before you can say El Yeah.

The Ravens counter with three reliable possession type receivers -- Derrick Mason, T.J. Whoseyourmama and Anquan Boldin. Boldin is a tremendous talent, one of the best in the game. He can pick up yards after the catch, he can fight through the most vicious blocks and he finds a way to get open in tight spaces in the endzone. If you had to sum him up in one word, it would be power. Donte Stallworth is supposed to be their speed guy, but with just two receptions all year, I'm guessing that he's not panned out quite the way they had hoped. No, they'll try to stretch the field with Boldin, who is by no mean slow, it's just the everybody else looks like they're running in pudding when compared to Wallace. Do you like unfettered speed? Or pure power? That's what it comes down to. Boldin? Or Wallace?

DEFENSIVE LINE: This is an interesting one. That the Steelers line has been so effective without the great Aaron Smith is a testament to their depth. Ziggy Hood is playing better with each passing week, and they got a huge lift when Brett Keisel returned from a nagging leg injury. Still, it'd be nice to have a 100% healthy Aaron Smith in their arsenal, wouldn't it?

For my money, Haloti Ngata is the best player on Baltimore's defense. Yeah, yeah, Ray's still the heartbeat of the team, T-Sizzle can come play for me any day of the week and Ed Reed is the second best safety in the game (more on that later), but Ngata is the most disruptive player on that team. He's fast and powerful. He just blows shit up all the time. To say nothing of his expertise in rhinoplasty.

LINEBACKERS: I see your Ray Lewis and T-Sizzle with my James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Then I'll raise you a Lawrence Timmons and throw in James Farrior for good measure. Yes, I'll be taking that pot in the middle, thank you very much. Suggs played like a man possessed in the last meeting between the teams and Ray just keeps on going, despite my hopes that he won't, but Harrison, Farrior, Timmons and Woodley have all turned in all-pro years. Farrior, especially, after he appeared to have dropped off last season.

Both defenses stop the run (opponents averaged under 100 yards per game against both teams) and both groups of linebackers are gap sound, but the Steelers are mind-blowing at run-stopping, allowing just under 63 yards per game. Only the Jets (106) and Patriots (103) rushed for more than 100 against them and no single player came close to running for 100 himself. The Ravens D is not quite as statistically impressive, except that they have forced 10 rushing fumbles, many due and owing to the backers.

The Steelers have outpaced the Ravens in the sack department by a mile, putting up 48 sacks to just 27. And while I understand that the Lebeau system is, um, linebacker friendly, shall we say, there's no disputing the fact that the Steelers just frankly kick ass in the sacking of the quarterback department. The four Steelers starters have a combined 29.5 sacks this season, more than the Baltimore defense in total. The Ravens four primary backers have contributed 15.5 sacks, and 11 of those are T-Sizzle's.

SAFETIES: Can we all just agree that Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are the two best safeties in the game? Okay, then. Dawan Landry and Ryan Clark are both good players, but this is all about Reed and Polamalu. I've never seen a safety ballhawk as effectively as Reed and I've never seen a guy pull one big play out of his hat after another, week in, week out, like Troy. I'm giving Troy the edge here and not because of his hair, but because the Steelers defense drops off appreciably when he's not on the field, while the Ravens are better able to tread water without Reed. It's gonna be a safety clinic on Saturday and that is no hyperbole.

CORNERS: Chris Carr is a nice corner. He tackles well and forced three fumbles this year. Josh Wilson ... aw, screw it. Frankly, none of the corners in this game are worth writing home about. The questions are these: (1) how do the Ravens contain Wallace's speed? can they contain him? And (2) how do the Steelers cover Boldin without giving up too much size in pursuit of the speed to cover him? Tough assignments any way you cut it.

KICKING/PUNTING: The Ravens have two kicking freaks in their employ and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I think Billy Cundiff can kick the ball through the uprights on kickoffs at least half the time. He's got a boomer for a leg. Plus, having kicked for the Browns and the Ravens, the guy is used to the quirks of Heinz Field.

Has anybody else noticed punter Sam Koch's ability to drop the ball inside the 10 and have it bounce straight up or bounce back away from the endzone? It's like he's able to kick and also get some freaky backspin on the ball, too. Every time, it bounces straight up and his coverage units can get down there and down the ball. Freak, I tells ya.

The Steelers wisely cut Jeff Reed and signed Shaun Suisham, who has been pleasantly reliable on field goal attempts, but his kickoffs are, like his predecessor, woefully short. Standing in for Dan Sepulveda, the Steelers will send out Jeremy Kapinos, who we haven't seen much of, so it's hard to know what he's got. I think we know this -- he's no Sam Koch. I expect the Ravens will be able to tilt the field with both of their outstanding kickers.

And one last thing, cut me Mick!

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