I admit that I will be as emotional as anyone Sunday and it will only be in small part because the Steelers are playing their bitter rivals. Flight 93 crashed, pretty much literally, in my childhood backyard -- five miles away from that small red house, as the crow flies. So, yeah, it's as personal to me as anyone living in New York City or any other American, and I will probably cry more than once. I'm man enough to admit that.
But part of it will definitely be that football has begun anew. This is The Season That Might Not Have Been. We were perilously close to not having football this year, or at least having an abbreviated season. Of course, that same greed that brought off-season activities to a screeching halt ultimately was the same greed that brought it back, because neither players or owners could see any benefit in making no money this season regardless of what they were each forced to concede.
Watching the Thursday night opener made me angry. Seeing how poorly the Saints played defense made me at one point postulate via Tweet, "do the Saints have any defensive backs on their roster? If so, they didn't dress any tonight." It made me long for smashmouth football, something that wasn't even whispered Thursday night.
It also annoyed the crap out of me seeing how poorly the Packers played defense. Where was that in the Super Bowl? And despite the fact that I now only have marginally more against Green Bay than I did going into the Super Bowl, it also angered me that the Saints came up inches short of a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion. Once again, fortune smiled brightly on the Packers, for the second game-that-actually-counts in a row.
Which brings me to Sunday. I'm already angry enough just because the Steelers play the Ravens tomorrow. I get that way when these teams play because, well, it's Baltimore. "Charm City" isn't charming. It's arrogant. It's Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. It's a bunch of mouths that run non-stop, talking smack about a team they cannot beat when Ben Roethlisberger plays -- seven straight times, Number Seven has found ways to beat them, be it a touchdown pass with 43 seconds left or a 2007 beatdown that included Large Benjamin throwing five touchdown passes in the first half.
Unfortunately for the Purple Birds (I'll be nice and call them non-derogatory names until after the game), Ben is healthy and, if the pre-season is any indicator, looking even more focused, accurate and dedicated than he has ever been. That's bad news for a team that wasn't able to stop him while he was playing with a broken foot and a nose that was turned to blood and putty by an uncalled illegal blow to the head in the first quarter of that game. Despite all the pain that came with those two injuries, Roethlisberger still managed to lead his team to victory.
And the scales may be tipped significantly further in favor of the Steelers this season. The Ravens enter the season with an offensive line that has not played a single snap together -- not even in the pre-season. They acquired speedy receiver Lee Evans from Buffalo, but he's still learning the details of the offense, though as a seasoned veteran he should be mostly up to speed now. Their number-three receiver is fast but is a rookie, doesn't yet know the system and has had some notable issues, oh, catching the ball.
Additionally, the Ravens have a new defensive coordinator and a secondary that is suspect at best. Reed, their perennial all-start free safety, will start the season healthy, which is about a hundred steps up from last season when he missed nearly half a year of games, but after him there is limited speed and experience. That's going to be troublesome against what just might collectively be the fastest receiving corps in the entire league, with third-year wideout Mike Wallace bringing along his speedy "Young Money" partners Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders for a really fast ride. Add in Hines Ward and Heath Miller catching passes underneath and there just might be too many hot options to cover, even if the Ravens rush three or four -- which won't happen because the Ravens' defense is predicated on its pass rush, just like Pittsburgh's. Ward catches anything despite the best coverage, and Miller's size (6'-5", 260 pounds) gives him a distinct advantage over the best safeties in the game.
There's a lot conspiring against the Ravens -- and that scares me, because a cornered animal is the most dangerous of all beasts. So here are the matchups to watch most closely on Sunday, because the winners of these contests will likely dictate who wins the game.
Pittsburgh SS Troy Polamalu versus Baltimore QB Joe Flacco
If Joe Flacco has a nemesis, it is Polamalu. Troy has actually made a career of demoralizing AFC North quarterbacks, and last year he delivered what was probably the lowest point in the Ravens' quarterback's young career. After moving to the line of scrimmage a mere moment before the snap, Polamalu came unblocked off the left tackle and forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter that was scooped up by the Steelers and gave them the ball deep in Baltimore territory. The strip-sack ultimately led to Isaac Redman's nine-yard touchdown catch that solidified him in Steelers' lore and also gave the Steelers the lead that would win the game, lock up the AFC North and give the Steelers homefield advantage when the two teams met for the third time last season in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs -- a game that was won by the Steelers despite trailing the Ravens 21-7 at halftime.
The biggest difference now is that Polamalu is fully healthy. When broken in some way, Troy is merely the best safety in the league. When he is healthy, he is the most dangerous defensive player in the NFL, as evidenced by his earning Defensive Player of the Year honors last season despite playing December and January with a significant Achiiles' tendon injury. His pre-snap movements and instinctive adjustments often befuddle even the most seasoned veterans, but this is only Joe Flacco's fourth year, and reading defenses has been his biggest area of struggle. He's had a good game or two against the Steelers, but more often than not he has struggled to adapt to the steady stream of Dick LeBeau-designed blitzes. That just makes it more difficult dealing with a dynamic player like Polamalu, who has the closing speed to be almost anywhere on the field at any time.
Oh, and Polamalu is one of the happiest people in Pittsburgh right now thanks to a four-year contract extension that is so new it still has the sticker in the window.
Ray Lewis has done his damage against the Steelers. So has Ed Reed, though he has been mostly neutralized when playing the Steelers -- maybe it's the constant sound of Hines Ward's footsteps. Who knows.
But the defensive player who has done the most damage to Pittsburgh is Terrell Suggs. His 12.5 career sacks against Steelers' quarterbacks are his second-most against any team, and the question marks surrounding the Pittsburgh offensive line in recent years -- this year included -- only add to his legend. One head-on hit on Roethlisberger looked so sickening that it still makes me cringe to think about it, especially considering that Suggs was entirely unblockable on that play. Coincidentally, that was also the last time the Ravens beat the Steelers' franchise quarterback.
Despite the string of losses against Pittsburgh's number-one passer, Suggs has continued to be a force. Right tackle Willie Colon will play his first regular-season game in a year and a half after missing the 2010 season with a torn Achilles' tendon, and left tackle Jonathan Scott has a single regular-season start against the Ravens. Suggs will be moved around throughout the game in an attempt to give him the best chance at getting into the backfield to pressure, hit and possibly sack Roethlisberger. But we sure hope not.
Baltimore DBs versus Young Money
We've already touched on the speed of "Young Money" but it deserves a lot more attention, and that's exactly what the Baltimore defense is likely to do as well.
Mike Wallace has 4.3 speed -- that mean's there is really no defender who can go stride-for-stride with him on every down. As his route-running has improved, he has only become more dangerous, which is hard to comprehend considering he has led the AFC in yards per reception each of his first two years and has averaged 20.3 yards on each of his 99 career catches. That stat is ridiculous no matter how you spin it.
Antonio Brown has been dangerous since the first time he touched a ball in a regular-season game -- he took the Week Two opening kickoff for a touchdown last year on one of the most perfectly designed and executed reverses I've ever seen. Emmanuel Sanders, a 2010 second-round draft pick, might be the best route runner on the team, and that includes 14-year veteran and prototypical possession receiver Hines Ward.
If the Steelers opt to run the no-huddle, which Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians intend to do more this year, they will likely do so out of a shotgun spread formation, putting all that speed on the field at one time. Baltimore has no answer for all of it, and in the event that they can keep all three of those guys covered, there are still going to be one or two more options for Roethlisberger to check down to, be they Ward, Miller or any of three runningbacks (Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore) who can all make big plays catching passes out of the backfield. From a pure passing standpoint, this is possibly the most fully stacked offense Pittsburgh has ever put on the field, and that includes the prolific lineups of the mid- to late-seventies. Of all the "skill position" players, there's not a single player whose abilities end at filling a roster spot -- they are all able to provide big plays at any given moment, and they all have.
I wouldn't want to face off against James Harrison on the best of days. Facing him with a new team after being cut for showing up to camp weighing almost 400 pounds? Not my idea of a fun task, but that's precisely the situation new Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Big Mac was cut by the Vikings, who drafted him in 2002, then was signed by the Ravens for a veteran presence on a suddenly suspect O-line. So let's count the problems:
New team and new scheme? Check.
Got cut by previous team? Check.
Got cut for being roughly a large golden retriever overweight? Check.
Deebo is both a speed rusher and a power rusher. The chances that McKinnie will be able to consistently handle either of those is slim to none at this point, so the best he can hope for to have assistance from a runningback. To his credit, Ray Rice is pretty doggone good at picking up rushers despite his relatively small size, so there is some chance that Harrison would be neutralized on most downs. But even though Harrison isn't in peak shape, I wouldn't count on it.
Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Tomlin versus Baltimore Head Coach John Harbaugh
This is money, right here.
These guys have played each other eight times, twice in the post-season, since Harbaugh became a head coach in 2008. In those games, Tomlin has a 6-2 edge -- that's a .750 winning percentage, if you're counting.
In both of those losses, a backup quarterback was playing for Pittsburgh. Each loss was by three points, and one happened in overtime against Dennis Dixon, when he was making his first career start.
Bottom line: Tomlin, the cool customer, the most even-keeled coach, the man who looks more like Omar Epps than Omar Epps, is money against Baltimore.
Outside of their head-to-head contests, the two have nearly identical winning percentages (Tomlin at .676, Harbaugh at .655). But when their paths cross, then inevitably collide, Tomlin is the victor three out of every four times.
Tomorrow presents the typically tough matchup between two perennial heavyweights. But the odds are stacked against the Ravens.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Ravens 13