Pregame Zone Blitz: Ravens at Steelers

I don't do this often. Ok, twice this year now. I'm going to bash a broadcaster.

Troy Aikman should be ashamed of himself for as poor of a job he did broadcasting Pittsburgh's 37-36 win over Green Bay in Week 15. I have always thought he's without question the most overrated color analyst in sports, but he cemented his place at least amongst Steelers fans as the worst. His extended negative diatribe about Pittsburgh's decision to attempt a surprise onside kick only enhanced the multiple misdiagnoses he made on plays throughout the game (Tyrone Carter's missed tackle to which Aikman gave him credit, then his calling out of the Packers receiver for not catching a pass that clearly bounced off a Steelers defender's back).

Speaking of Carter...that was perhaps the worst performance I've ever seen from a professional defensive back. Maybe suggesting a Steelers d-back didn't play well will hack Ryan Clark off, but overall, it was a poor outing for all of them.

So that's out of the way. In reality, all credit in the world to Aaron Rodgers, who was flat-out unstoppable in the second half. Contrary to Aikman's one-dimensional thinking (and short-term memory loss), the onside kick was the smart move (more on that in a minute) because Rodgers was on fire.

The only thing hotter than Rodgers was AFC Offensive Player of the Week, Ben Roethlisberger. Tough break, Aaron.

Here's what our opponents are saying.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Corey Ivy continues his recent role as a mercenary between both of these teams.

Baltimore Beatdown suggests the fans of the Steelers and Ravens "need each other."

S Ed Reed and T Jared Gaither, amongst others, didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday for Baltimore and likely won't play Sunday.

The Ravens will need to keep QB Joe Flacco upright if they want to win this game.

Bruce at Baltimore Beatdown is pumped about a holiday video card he got from the NFL...via the Ravens, personally, to him.

Last Game

It's probably inappropriate to suggest it was a replay of the Super Bowl. But the difficulty of the catch, the poor starting field position Pittsburgh had after an offensive penalty, Santonio Holmes coming up huge (32 yards on 4th and 7), the ice in Roethlisberger's veins, all happening right after the defense blew a fourth quarter lead.

Maybe it wasn't the Super Bowl. It sure was exciting, though.

The win solidifies the fact that the team is one missed tackle, one dropped pass and/or one defensive stop away from being up top the AFC North. With Cincinnati's second loss (and third in their previous five games) two losses to the likely division champion Bengals shows under the microscope even more brightly than it did previously. While K Jeff Reed nailed some huge kicks against Green Bay, two he missed in a loss at Chicago show up even more. The defense's lack of ability to take Ravens RB Ray Rice down in overtime of a critical loss appears more costly now.

Not that the team is dwelling on these things. Neither is PZB. In fact, let's just focus on the end of one of the most exciting games in recent memory.

With the season on the line, Roethlisberger hit the Steelers big playmaker, Holmes, fanning the optimistic flames. With multiple Wild Card contenders seeming to not want to take the final two playoff spots, Pittsburgh passed their way back into contention. The Steelers still need a lot of help, but if nothing else, it makes their last two games meaningful. Wins over Baltimore this week and Miami next week won't do it alone; they need losses from Denver, Jacksonville and New York as well.

But with a franchise record 503 yards passing from Roethlisberger (one of only 10 500+ passing games in league history), and all of a sudden, anything seems possible, even without the return of SS Troy Polamalu.

And Pittsburgh's a dangerous team again.

Let's watch it again.

Opponent Spotlight: RB Ray Rice

With the Steelers up 13-0 in the AFC Championship game last season, rookie RB Ray Rice shook off a tackle from James Farrior and rumbled for 20 yards.

In the fourth quarter of their game this season, second-year beast Rice eluded Farrior and scampered 44 yards into position for the game-tying field goal. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau said he had Farrior out of position on the play this season, but it's certainly not as if Farrior is the only defender Rice has victimized this year. He has just a shade under 1,800 total yards, and leads the Ravens in both rushing yards (1,128) and receptions (73 catches for 669 yards), en route to a probable Pro Bowl selection.

He does it with power, he does it with elusive quickness. In fact, his versatility causes some to get after QB Joe Flacco for not looking at other offensive options.

Why should he? Baltimore is getting 6.3 yards every time Rice touches the ball.

Rice is one of the two or three best all-around offensive threats in the game, which helps Baltimore attack out of their base offense without losing any ground. The depth they have at running back (Willis McGahee and LaRon McClain) affords them the ability to use Rice in a variety of ways and still keep defenses guessing.

When Baltimore is at its best, Rice is the difference-maker. If they can get him 20+ total touches, and he's able to keep to his six yard per touch average Pittsburgh will be involved in another shootout, much like Green Bay in Week 15.

Steelers Spotlight:  WR Santonio Holmes

Call him the Ravens Killer.

Holmes has scored at least one touchdown in the past six Steelers/Ravens games (eight overall), including Pittsburgh's only receiving touchdown in their loss earlier this year.

Overall, Holmes has quietly been the most outstanding non-quarterback on the offense, and is in a sneaky position to potentially break the team's single-season receiving mark.

No better way to do that than by leading a team that was nearly flatlined two weeks ago to a surprising-but-not-surprising playoff berth. The Steelers need this win to make one final push for that.

So do the Ravens.

Chicago tried throwing at CB Domonique Foxworth quite a bit in Baltimore's 31-7 whipping in Week 15. They found little success, and that was without FS Ed Reed in the game. Holmes is likely to see over the top coverage from FS Tom Zbikowski if Reed does not play (listed as doubtful as of Saturday), but Holmes has turned into a much more complete receiver in his fourth season; the days of him being solely a deep threat are gone.

If anyone knows that, it's the Ravens.

I See You

I see you, Mike Tomlin. I'm going to be one of the few who loved the strategy behind the onside kick. Aikman can go do something private to himself, it was a very rational and logical decision, and frankly, it nearly worked. It wasn't drawn up for Ike Taylor to pick up the ball after nine yards. Let's add that to the list of things Taylor hasn't executed well this year.

I see you, coach Tomlin, because you basically said what everyone knows, we cannot rely on this defense. Lovin' the fact you acknowledged the elephant in the room. If it's more likely that the red hot Aaron Rodgers is going to direct yet another touchdown drive, it logically will take less time if they start at their own 45. Then you give Roethlisberger, who's playing even better and is starving to finally net a come-from-behind win (denied four times this season), a chance to win the game for you.

And dammit, smart coaches, managers, leaders will make decisions based on their willingness to accept the worst-case scenario. In this case, the worst case scenario was Green Bay getting the ball at their 45.

You were right. Excellent call, Coach, and if no one else Sees it, then know PZB Sees it.

Key Stats

  • Roethlisberger needs 26 passing yards to reach 15,000 for his career. He'll be the only active QB under 30 years of age at that mark (27).
  • Roethlisberger also needs just 151 passing yards to reach 4,000 for the season, a mark never achieved by a Steelers quarterback.
  • Santonio Holmes (1,157) needs 242 yards in his final two games to break Yancey Thigpen's 12-year-old single-season receiving yards record (1,398).
  • Rashard Mendenhall needs 32 yards to reach 1,000 for the first time in his career.
  • Heath Miller has a franchise-record 68 catches this season. The last time a Steelers TE caught over 63 passes, that TE went to the Pro Bowl (Eric Green, 1993).

Quick-Hitters

The Future could start Sunday: Pittsburgh clearly did not take advantage of a weak schedule this season, losing to three teams likely to be selecting in the top five of April's draft. Regardless of how they finish, they are slated to play all four teams in the AFC East and the NFC South. The opponents of the remaining two games depend on whether Pittsburgh finished second or third in the division (Cleveland has already clinched fourth place for the 400th straight year).

If Baltimore wins Sunday, Pittsburgh is eliminated from the playoffs, and they clinch third-place in the AFC North. In that situation, their schedule for 2010 would be:

Baltimore X2, Cincinnati X2, Cleveland X2. AFC East (Buffalo, Miami, New England, New York Jets). NFC South (Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay). Third place AFC South (either Jacksonville, Tennessee or Houston). Third place AFC West (Oakland or Kansas City).

This isn't set in stone yet, Pittsburgh plays Miami in Week 17, and the Dolphins and Jets are both 7-7. With Tennessee's loss Friday night, a win from Jacksonville and Houston in one of their remaining two games would make the Titans fourth place in the South. A win by Oakland clinches third place in the West.

A win Sunday and a win at Miami in Week 17 would possibly give the Steelers a playoff berth, and two Baltimore losses would give Pittsburgh a second-place schedule, which would be Denver instead of Oakland/KC and Jacksonville/Houston over Tennessee.  

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