Pregame Zone Blitz: Steelers at Ravens

After a disastrous loss to the lowly Chiefs, and Cincinnati's equally disastrous loss to the even lowlier Raiders, the Steelers find themselves in a knock-down, drag-out fight for the AFC North title and a Wild Card spot at the same time.

PZB promises not to mention the phrase "let-down game" again.  

The phrases "The Hated Ravens" and "Rivalry Week" will be used liberally, though.

It's so much fun to hate the Ravens, but frankly, there's so much to these games - hence the reason one of the two of them is always on Primetime. There's the fact that last year's AFC Championship game was the most physical in the history of the event. There's the excitement of knowing from the start of the playoffs it was going to be those two teams fighting - literally - for a Super Bowl bid. There was The Bounty, Sweed's smack on Corey Ivy (wait, he's a Steeler now...more on him in a bit), Clark vs. Magahee...and that was all one game.

Now, PZB is still recovering from the stomach punch he took when the Ravens traded up to select Hardcover Boy Michael Oher in last year's draft. I don't think I can even watch the movie, but The Blind Side is probably the most enjoyable book I've ever read. And he's a Raven...damn that hurts.

Anyway...so much to this game. Gotta love The Hated Ravens and Rivalry Week.

Here's what our opponents are saying.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Bruce with Baltimore Beatdown sums up the Ravens position against their arch-rivals quite nicely.

Let's remember, this is the best rivalry in the NFL.

The Baltimore Sun (best local team coverage of any paper anywhere) gets the Ravens' reactions to the classic "We'll start our own towel tradition!" bit.

Steelers receivers let out a sigh of disappointment when they find out Ravens CB Fabian Washington was placed on the IR.

Jason Whitlock calls out the Ravens coaching staff in his 10 NFL Truths column (No. 7).

Last Game

SteelerWife texted me during the fourth quarter, saying we had to leave right after it was over because she just threw up in the bathroom. We were with SteelerBro and future Mrs. SteelerBro, so not admitting to her ailment was paramount.

While I wasn't physically sick, that overwhelming feeling of hopelessness was setting in. The Steelers just weren't able to put the plucky Chiefs away. From the minute Pittsburgh's special teams allowed yet another touchdown - and we got the treat of seeing yet another return man run away from a hard-charging Stefan Logan from the end zone cam - the game didn't feel right. Up until the point SteelerWife summarized the game with a few violent heaves in the bathroom of McGovern's, I felt mentally sick.

We normally turn to our quarterback in those situations. He was completing passes, but there was a fumble after a completion by Mike Wallace, there was a ball that went straight through Heath Miller's hands, there was a bad throw in the end zone that was picked off and returned nearly all the way.

Then there was a defense that clearly wasn't on the same page when Chris Chambers waltzed like an elderly man in a ballroom dancing class 60 yards down the field to set up one of the stupidest losses in team history. We were leaving the bar barely before the kick was made.

SteelerWife got sick again on the way home. She got over it. I'm not sure if the Steelers will.

Opponent Spotlight: QB Joe Flacco

Flacco's numbers in his first three games against the Steelers made him look more like JaMarcus Russell.

Granted, if you take out the three games against the Steelers, Flacco looked like a star on the rise.  

So far in 2009, he's struggled a little bit more, but his overall scope of work is pretty solid. Eight interceptions are too many for any passer, and it goes a little bit into why Baltimore is 5-5. He hasn't been particularly consistent, either. His last four games, his completion percentage has gone from 80 (win) to 56 (loss) to 72 (win) to 65 (loss).

He's had Player of the Week performances (at Minnesota in Week 6, 385 yards, two touchdowns) and Russell-ian depths (at Cincinnati in Week 9, 18-for-32, 0 TDs, 2 INTs).

Baltimore's defense has been banged up for a good portion of the season. NT Haloti Ngata and DE Terrell Suggs have both missed time this year, and CB Fabian Washington was just placed on the IR. The Ravens have relied on their second year passer to carry much of the burden this year, which is a shift from standard for the defense-laden Ravens. While Flacco has received a boost from All-Purpose Machine Ray Rice (1,248 yards rushing and receiving, seven total TDs), Pittsburgh is going to have harass Flacco much like last year to nullify their own injury disadvantages.

Steelers Spotlight:  QB Ben Roethlisberger

(UPDATE: Maybe none of this matters, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer is reporting Roethlisberger will not play Sunday night.)

PZB doesn't catch knees to the head very often. What happened to Roethlisberger in Week 11 looked extraordinarily uncomfortable, but Charlie Batch's Lamar Latrell impression on an out-pattern, followed by his subsequent wrist surgery, makes Roethlisberger's injury look mild by comparison.

At least, that's the impression the team gave off this week. Batch's wrist injury moved Roethlisberger's concussion from "normal" to "mild," and all signs point to Roethlisberger playing Sunday.

That's the case in most people's minds, but Jason La Canfora of NFL.com suggests Ben may bench himself. Seems like a ridiculous notion, but it's worthy of mention, because if Ben doesn't play, the Steelers go into enemy territory with Dennis "Double-D" Dixon under center.

Even funnier, if Roethlisberger doesn't play, former mild Saturday hero Tyler Palko will back Double-D up.

Stranger yet, the chairs of the NFL's concussion committee resigned this week. Is there a connection here?

The last time Roethlisberger played the week following sustaining what was believed to be a concussion was in 2006 at Oakland. The Raiders managed all of 98 yards of offense, but returned two Roethlisberger interceptions for touchdowns. One of those came in the end zone, when CB Chris Carr took it back 100 yards for the decisive score in an improbable 20-13 win.

Should we expect Roethlisberger to perform similarly Sunday? It's a matter of at least some conjecture, but he's played some of the best football of his career against Baltimore. He's also played some of his worst. What we can definitely count on is a lack of rushing game. While it's likely Roethlisberger will be under center, and while it's not the same Ravens team it was a year ago, neither team traditionally runs well against each other, and the key is typically one defense's ability to put the passer on the ground.

Steelers NEW Spotlight: QB Dennis Dixon

Operating under the assumption that Roethlisberger will not play, let's take a look at Dixon, and what we know about the man.

He decided he'd be a better quarterback than a baseball player. So he's got that going for him.

His 3-yard completion to Hines Ward (his 800th career reception) in mop-up time in Week 17 last season makes him one of the few 100 percent completion passers in NFL history. Also a nice honor to have.

What's going to be critical for Dixon, however, is the element of surprise. Teams always have to be wary of the player of which they have no actual game film. Dixon hasn't played against any NFL starting talent (just the preseason taxi squads and the Browns), but those teams haven't seen him either.

The Steelers had the advantage of disguise as well. They could have had Ben running around a bit all week just to put out the idea he's going to play, but behind closed doors, preparing Dixon to start.

Plus, film study, practice reps, preparation...that's one thing. Getting one of the best athletes in the game out on the field with nothing personally to lose (no one expects him to win this game) can be an advantage - even playing on the road.

How quiet do crowds get on the road when Ben scrambles for 17 yards on 3rd-and-9? How tired do defenses get when he avoids a tackle, buys some time and flicks the ball off to a running back for a 12-yard gain? These all seem to be right in the wheelhouse of a third-string quarterback with all-world athletic ability.

I See You

"Corey's presence here has nothing to do with insight, and more to do with his ability to make plays in the special teams game."

-Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin

I see you, Corey Ivy. That's difficult to say, I'm not gonna lie to you. I've seen you with the Ravens several times over the years. I even saw you with the Browns. You're not someone I've seen positively yet in your career.

I see you now, though, because you've got a chance to get back in the game. There's a few coverage units that need desperate help. We allow kick return touchdowns like we're confused as to whether we're supposed to tackle or block. Our Nickel defense hasn't been great, either.

We need your help, Corey. I know, I Saw Donovan Woods last week, and he didn't exactly come through. But you're going to be the man this week. I'm going to tell you why, too. You didn't hate the Steelers after Limas Sweed laid you out in the AFC Championship game. You hated all the Ravens fans who cast you out. You hated upper management when they brought in Fabian Washington to essentially replace you. You just have to love the Steelers now. They're giving you a chance to go out and exact some level of revenge. I'm looking forward to the roar from Steeler Nation when you make a few special teams tackles, and you grab your place on this roster.

I hope you See it too, Corey. Really, I do. But we gotta watch your lowest low moment again. Sorry.

 

Key Stats

  • 33 of Ravens QB Joe Flacco's last 53 passes have gone to Derrick Mason or Ray Rice.
  • Baltimore's offense has failed to score a touchdown in the first half of its last six games.
  • Rice is second among NFL running backs with 124.8 yards per game from scrimmage.
  • The 2009 Steelers defense is allowing 11 less rushing yards per game (69.2) than the 2008 Steelers (80.2).

Quick Hitters

  • I understand the sin of schadenfreude, but frankly, if anyone deserved the misery of dropping seven of his last eight, it's former Ravens coordinator now Jets head coach Rex Ryan. It's nothing against his players or Jets fans, it's the fact he had one full year of experience under a humble coach, John Harbaugh, and three games against another successful and humble head coach, Mike Tomlin, on which to build a career. Instead, Ryan acts like a complete pompous ass, getting in verbal back-and-forths with players on other teams. He calls out the Patriots before their Week 2 game, celebrates as if he won the Super Bowl when he defeating their arch-rivals, then complained after the Pats put a whipping on his team in the re-match. I have a world of respect for Harbaugh and what the Ravens have been able to accomplish. I'm glad to see, records aside, Ryan is no longer a part of this rivalry, but I sure wish the Jets were in the AFC North. I'd love to see Tomlin's reaction to anything that bloated jackhole would have to say.
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