BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: Side judge Allen Baynes #56 tries to seperate William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers (L) and Torrey Smith #82 of the Baltimore Ravens (R) during an altercation during the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
"The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable." - Sun Tzu
I won't spend too much time trying to flesh out the metaphor between the tactics of war Sun Tzu was referring to and the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Football is not war, of course, but let's look at the broader lesson can be extracted that very much applies to the Steelers-Ravens rivalry specifically, and how best to go about assembling a winning NFL roster more generally.
That lesson is: be proactive, creative and unafraid when retooling your roster. At all times really, but though difficult, especially at times when you're close but ultimately fall just short against a superior team, and even after winning it all and feeling entirely invincible. It'd be worthwhile to have this same conversation about the Steelers, but for now, I wanted to just tip my cap to the Ravens for a number of ballsy, forward thinking transactions made this summer.
There's probably even more relevant examples than listed here, but to begin with:
T.J. Houshmandzadeh played and whined his way out of town in 2010, but the decisions to release Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Willis McGahee and Kelly Gregg came all at once and were stunning at first. How could you release four productive veterans and team leaders like that? Well, loyalty is important; we as Steelers fans know that better than anybody. But loyalty is earned through hardware, nothing else, as hard a reality as that may be to accept at times as fans. If you're not winning it all, than any and all alternative strategies have to be considered. The Ravens did exactly that.
Ed Dixon + Dennis Pitta > Todd Heap. Pretty simple equation. Heap will be remembered fondly by the Ravens organization for years to come, probably even by making All Time Teams. But the bottom line is the Ravens had to get faster at the position if they were to create favorable situations against the Steelers defense. Dixon and Pitta caught a combined 7 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Both guys are extremely tough covers for linebackers, and they're not even easy covers for safetys, even great ones like Troy Polamalu. Awesome upgrade by Baltimore.
The decision to let Derrick Mason go might be the most interesting. There was nothing that suggested that Mason couldn't play anymore -- he's averaged roughly 70 receptions, more than 900 yards and a shade more than 6 TDs per year the last three seasons. He's now 36 and not getting any younger, but common logic would suggest they would keep the veteran around to at least contribute in some capacity. While I have no way to confirm this or not, I wonder if the decision to part ways with Mason partly stemmed from Joe Flacco's propensity to look his way too regularly at the expense of a more diversified, less predictable offensive attack. Again, I can't say with any certainty that that is true at all. Regardless, the Ravens again opted to get faster, acquiring Buffalo's Lee Evans, a nice addition, but one I don't think completely makes sense unless without my proposed line of reasoning that suggests that Cam Cameron and John Harbaugh wanted to take away Flacco's safety valve and in turn break some of the tendencies Flacco had developed during his first three seasons.
I also applaud the upgrade from Willis McGahee to Ricky Williams. McGahee wanted money, still believed he could be the guy, and though a great asset on the team for years, it was the right time to look elsewhere for the right compliment to Ray Rice. I personally think the Ravens did a super job identifying Williams as that guy. Williams is old enough where he knows he will not be starting unless injuries force him into that role. But he's also proven the past few years in Miami that he can be a starting quality back in the even of an injury to the No. 1 back (Ronnie Brown). Finally, he can catch the ball almost as adeptly as Rice, and that's saying something. It's a nice two-headed rushing attack, and I guarantee you that Harbaugh and Cameron are going to do everything they can to keep Rice fresh come December by mixing in Williams far more regularly than they did with McGahee.
Looks like the Ravens made the right call by rolling the dice on Brian McKinnie. We'll see if that holds up over the course of a long season, but hey, the Steelers just made it to the Super Bowl with a veteran offensive tackle, Flozell Adams, that most thought was no longer capable of playing at a championship level. James Harrison's road back to full strength is well documented here on Behind the Steel Curtain, but even at 70-80 percent, Harrison is still a load to handle as we saw Sunday. Harrison may not have dominated like we're used to seeing, but he wasn't a total non-factor. His compadres around him were much worse actually. But McKinnie nevertheless (with the benefit of a few no-calls on holding) kept Harrison from disrupting Flacco's rhythm for most all of Sunday afternoon.
- When I saw Vonta Leach haul in his lone reception Sunday, I cringed and realized just how valuable of an addition he is going to be for Baltimore. His one receptions came on a dart of a pass from Flacco that the veteran Leach caught with his hands easily before being taken down for a hefty 0 yard gain. Still, here's the wrinkle it adds. Obviously Leach will clear running lanes for Rice, but honestly, the upgrade in the run blocking will not pay dividends against Pittsburgh in the second meeting like it did. It will against other teams, but the Steelers will shut down the run next meeting, period. Still, Leach makes Baltimore's play-action game more diversified and scary. With tight ends Dixon and Pitta occupying attention from linebackers and perhaps the secondary, and Evans theoretically clearing out a safety deep, Leach should find himself open as a viable safety valve for Flacco in just about every situation that he's on the field and play action is run. It may not amount to huge splash plays, but it's the type of play that keeps Flacco out of bad situations and the down and distance manageable enough where the playbook opens up for Cameron.
I didn't really reference specific plays from the the Steelers 35-7 loss to Baltimore on Sunday, but whatever, doesn't really matter.
"You come at the king, you best not miss." - Omar Little
That's what matters, The Ravens have been close, real close. I'm not sure they falter against the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl had they now blown the AFC Divisional Round and somehow managed to get by a New York Jets team they match up with very decently.
But there are the Steelers, the kings, perpetually in the way. Rather than feeling good about getting close, or convincing themselves that they can get there if they don't turn the ball over inexcusably under pressure, Baltimore was proactive this offseason retooling the roster in a way that would better matchup against the six-time champion Steelers. Lots of football still to be played before we know whether the Steelers' roster still has enough to be a legitimate contender, and whether the Ravens' maneuverings will pay dividends over the long haul against other opponents they used to match up well against. But for the time being, a tip of the cap to Ozzie Newsome for rolling the dice, not being afraid of fan backlash, and making the moves he thought were necessary to keep one of the NFL's best modern rivalries alive and well.