The NFL’s most ferocious rivalry takes place in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident blowing up the integrity of the league’s highest office. While much still needs to be sorted out with all parties involved, the game of football marches on.
A pivotal division matchup may provide the Ravens players with a necessary distraction while giving the Steelers a prime opportunity to take control of the AFC North. One thing is for certain — a win won’t come easy for either team. Since Joe Flacco was introduced to the rivalry in 2008, 12 of the 14 matchups (playoffs included) were decided by seven points or less. Pittsburgh holds the slight edge, holding an 8-6 record including a 3-0 record in the postseason.
What makes the first edition of the 2014 rivalry especially interesting is how the two teams matchup. Hard-nosed, lunch pail defense has defined the rivalry for the past six years. For the first time since the pre-Flacco days, it seems the teams are significantly different. Pittsburgh’s offense is it’s strength, featuring speed at the receiver position and a pair of bruising running backs in Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.
Baltimore’s defense still has its physicality in players like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, but has lost a bit of sizzle with the departures of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Younger players are moving into more prominent roles like second-year safety Matt Elam and rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley, making up for what Baltimore has lost in locker room presence with youth and athleticism.
The Ravens have their fair share of issues on offense. Joe Flacco threw for 345 yards, a normally impressive mark, but much less so when you consider Flacco had 62 attempts and 35 completions giving him mediocre totals of 5.6 YPA and 9.9 YPC. Take away one 80-yard catch and run from Steve Smith and Flacco completed 31 passes for just 265 yards. What does it mean? The Flacco and Smith combo just wasn’t very good. Neither is the Justin Forsett-led ground game, which is completely devoid of starting talent. To expect the 29-year old Forsett to hold up his 6.4 YPC moving forward would be absurd.
Lucky for the Ravens, the Steelers defense isn’t very good. While they have their own share of young players, they’re a unit still stuck in transition, as made evident by the way they struggled with the mighty Cleveland Browns last week. Andrew Hawkins, a 5-7 receiver, consistently found openings in the Steelers zone defense, collecting 87 yards on eight receptions. Two rookie running backs combined for 6.3 YPC, 132 yards, and two touchdowns. Brian Hoyer went 15 for 20 in the second half as the Browns picked up 20 first downs and 24 straight points operating primarily out of the no huddle. Yikes.
Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz, “tackle the catch” scheme has been a staple of excellent defense for years, but with Pittsburgh’s current lack of a pass rusher to force QBs into making bad throws into those zones, even lower-tier offenses like Cleveland’s can move the ball effectively. If the Ravens took good notes in the short week of practice, they’ll employ plenty of no huddle and run out of three and four wide receiver sets.
Despite all the negative publicity the Ravens have generated in wake of the Ray Rice mess, this game will still be close. There isn’t much separating the two rosters but if Pittsburgh opens and closes the way they started in the first half against Cleveland last week, they’ll open the season with 2-0 record overall and within their division. Le’Veon Bell will be key for Baltimore to stop as the dual-threat back made mince meat of a decent Cleveland defense in Week One.
The Ravens are better at stopping the run, but Bell has already had success against Baltimore in the past, running for a 4.7 YPC and 166 yards, 69 receiving yards and a touchdown in their first two meetings. If Bell is allowed to run effectively, the Ravens defense will spend a fair amount of time on the field — time that could be otherwise on attacking a relatively young Steelers front seven with multiple sets out of the hurry up offense. Conversely, if Pittsburgh gets off to a slow start and can’t find a rhythm with their own no-huddle, they won’t stay ahead of the curve, and giving the Ravens any extra chances will prove to be a quick way to lose a pivotal game.
PREDICTION: Steelers 24 Ravens 21 Spurred on by a newly improved offense, Pittsburgh gets off to a fast start and sets the pace. The Ravens will do enough to make it close but their own offensive deficiencies won’t be consistent enough to take advantage of a sub-par opposing defense. Roethlisberger gets his second 4th quarter game-winning drive in as many weeks.
Tim Mullhaupt (@TimakaHines) is the editor of The Buckets Blog.