By Tyler Springs
November 29, 2009
For fans of the Baltimore Ravens, there exists no phrase in the English language that evokes as much hateful emotion as "Pittsburgh Steelers." The words themselves are difficult to say without a sarcastic sneer on one's face, testimony to the acrid feelings shared by all Baltimoreans on any given Sunday when "that black and gold team" wins. No fans are more familiar with Ben Roethlisberger's habit of escaping the pocket and finding an open receiver; no team knows and respects and loathes the other team's defense as Baltimore despises Pittsburgh. The mere mention of last year's AFC Championship game gets the blood pumping at exponentially high levels in fans crossing the Ostend Street bridge toward the stadium gates. Not even the Bronx Bombers themselves eclipse the Steelers' mark for "Most Hated Baltimore Opponent." I won't speak to Pittsburgh's most hated opponent, but here's evidence of the lengths the team will go to make sure the Ravens feel unwelcome.
Pick your generic insult: somewhere, that jab will be sold on a t-shirt outside M&T Bank Stadium in the hours before tonight's game. Whatever the normal price of your ticket may be, it just went up $100. If you think you've seen Ray Lewis fired up this season, you haven't even come close. All-black Ravens jerseys or normal home colors, rain or shine, NBC or Section B, Row C, this is a game you will not want to miss, wherever you pledge your team allegiance. It is, like most years, the best game the AFC North has to offer.
Last year, the margin of victory in each of the three games between these teams was a single digit (3, 4 and 9). This year's editions of each rank in the top ten in total defense, points allowed and rushing yards allowed. Both have had two tight losses to division leader Cincinnati and other games where they were oh-so-close but could not pull out a win. With records near the .500 mark, both teams would love to have this game to help their push for the sixth AFC playoff spot, but the Ravens need it most. As they stand at 5-5 with games still to play at Green Bay, home against Chicago and then in Pittsburgh on December 27th, their season is riding on the outcome of this game.
Fans are well aware that the conditions of tonight's game are such that the Ravens are already in a good position to succeed. Clear weather, relatively low winds and 71,000 of their loudest, closest friends will support them in their efforts, but simply having Uncle Mo' on their side won't be enough to get the job done.
Thanks to Derrick Johnson, the Ravens have been spared the experience of facing Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has completed more than 68 percent of his passes this season and has an uncanny knack for wriggling out of tight situations. This is a colossal advantage for Baltimore: because backup quarterback Charlie Batch was also injured in last week's Steelers-Chiefs contest, the task of leading the Steelers' offense now falls to third-stringer Dennis Dixon, a man who has exactly one pass attempt in his two years in the NFL. Dixon's lack of experience should give the Ravens plenty of opportunities to create confusion; the ideal result would be for Dixon to struggle so much that the Pittsburgh offense becomes one-dimensional, allowing the Ravens to focus on running back Rashard Mendenhall and eliminate any hope Pittsburgh has of sustaining long scoring drives. The flip side is that Dixon gives the Ravens more to worry about, since he is quick on his feet and dangerous in the open field in a way that Roethlisberger simply is not.
When the Ravens offense takes the field, the key is distribution. In recent weeks, Joe Flacco has thrown 62 percent of his passes to wideout Derrick Mason or running back Ray Rice, which is a departure from early-season games in which complementary receivers Mark Clayton, Todd Heap and Kelley Washington were more involved. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron needs to implement a balanced attack in which the Steelers cannot target one receiver without the risk of giving up a big play. Additionally, backup running backs Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain should carry the ball at least 5-10 times between the two of them to change the pace of the offense and make sure Rice doesn't tire early. If the Ravens are forced to rely on their inconsistent special teams play, they will have sorely missed their mark.
For the Steelers, this game will be about minimizing the decisions Dixon must make in the pocket and finding different ways to get the ball into the hands of Mendenhall and wideouts Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes as quickly and safely as possible. The running game will most likely be the focus of Ray Lewis and Co., so Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, if he is wise, should use Dixon's ability to scramble on pass plays to his advantage. I expect the Steelers to play their normal brand of smashmouth defense with or without injured safety Troy Polamalu; their bigger problem is fixing the play of their special teams unit, which allowed a crucial touchdown to Kansas City last week. Return man Stefan Logan will also need to make a big play if the offense sputters under Dixon's control, or the Steelers may be out of luck.
Although the season's end is a long way away, the winner of tonight's matchup will determine which team sets themselves on the path to the final playoff spot. Because they still have a home game left against the Ravens, the Steelers would be less hurt by a loss, but that's not the case for Baltimore. This is a make-or-break game with all the trappings of playoff intensity. If the Ravens lose, they cannot point the finger at anyone but themselves.
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