The season begins, not with a whimper, but with a bang.
The Steelers travel to Baltimore for the league's most competitive rivalry. Unlike the games of the past, though, the strengths of both of these teams may be their respective offensive units. This takes nothing away from excellent defenses on both sides, but internal improvements inside Pittsburgh and external focus in Baltimore give both teams renewed point-scoring optimism.
In the previous four meetings, the most points one teams scored was 23 (Steelers 23-20 win in 2009). The 31-24 shootout last year could be a sign of things to come.
Baltimore has a new defensive coordinator, but the same history against the Steelers starting quarterback. Pittsburgh may see a push for three sacred letters never chanted before in Pittsburgh.
There's a lot of new stuff, but some things don't change. Steelers-Ravens. The two best pre-game words in all of sports.
Opponent Web Sites/Forums
Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston officially fired the first media shot of Steelers/Ravens Week with his barb about the "drama" surrounding Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Baltimore Beatdown writer Bruce Raffel dug around and found a few prop bets on Ravens players.
NFL.com's Albert Breer highlights new Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's experience in coaching the defensive secondary.
The last time these teams played, PZB quipped a rare Ravens personnel flub was exposed. Their two big-name free agents, WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, dropped passes in the fourth quarter of a winnable game. That was after the Ravens blew a 21-7 lead, allowing the Steelers to rattle off a 24-10 run over the second half.
The perceived lack of vertical receivers and alleged superiority over everyone else in the AFC North at that position was proved to be false. That comes not only from Boldin's underwhelming performance over 18 games last year, but from the fact the Steelers targeted then-rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown 10 times, resulting in 129 yards.
Gone now are Houshmandzadeh, TE Todd Heap and veteran Derrick Mason - who has 100 career catches against the Steelers, the highest in his career against one team. The Ravens only brought in Lee Evans to help bolster an inexperienced receiving group.
It wasn't long ago Steelers receivers Mike Wallace, Sanders and Brown were also considered too young and without experience. Based largely on their performances in the Divisional playoffs, the Ravens cleared way for a lot of younger talent, including rookie speedster Torrey Smith and second-year TE Ed Dickson.
While the Steelers worked to improve internally, the Ravens sought outside help to boost their offense. For Baltimore, it was largely out of envy of the Steelers injection of youth at the receiver position - the same guys who made the plays Baltimore should have in the playoffs.
The release of Heap and the election to not bring back Houshmandzadeh can't be fairly called surprise moves, but the trade for Evans came late in the game. Baltimore can't afford a slow start at the position for the second year in a row.
Us Against The World
How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.
It's amazing to me how, in a league as dynamic and ever-changing as the NFL, some things just don't change. Take Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, for example. The smarmy and pompous head of a web site dedicated to doing nothing but riling people up loves making predictions. Ironically, though, his predictions don't ever change.
Here's Mike Florio picking the Ravens to beat the Steelers in Week 13 last year.
Here's Florio picking the Ravens to beat the Steelers in the playoffs.
Here's Florio picking the Ravens to win the AFC North in 2010.
Here's Florio picking the Ravens to win the Super Bowl in 2010...oh wait, that's the same clip as the division championship prediction.
And, of course, here's Florio picking the Ravens to win the AFC North in 2011. Don't bother listening to it, it's garbage, but it marks the second consecutive year Florio picked Baltimore because "this is the year they'll get the Steelers monkey off their back," and because "Pittsburgh typically slides a year after appearing in the Super Bowl, or at least that's the way it's been over the last 10 years."
It's been longer than 10 years since Baltimore went to a Super Bowl, and slid more than a few times after that appearance, but that doesn't seem to matter.
The season-opening Us Against The World isn't meant to take a fat-headed hack like Florio too seriously, it's simply the best way to show it has all started over again. People didn't pick Pittsburgh last year because Roethlisberger was out for four games. He's back now, and people still are not picking Pittsburgh.
So it begins...everyone's against us. Just the way the Steelers like it.
Opponent Offensive Spotlight: QB Joe Flacco
Flacco began the truncated preseason by declaring to all that he is a "pretty damn good" quarterback.
PZB isn't sure with whom he switched jerseys in the second half of the AFC Divisional playoffs last year, but the quarterback in the last 30 minutes was not pretty damn good. He was pretty awful, in fact.
After a nice 12-for-18 first half passing line, with 82 yards and a touchdown, Flacco fell apart over the final two quarters, completing just four of 12 passes for 43 yards, an interception and a lost fumble.
Some will point out drops by Boldin and Houshmandzadeh late in that game in defense of the fourth-year passer. Can't argue with that. It is a thin veil of solace over an otherwise poor clutch performance, and it's debatable whether Baltimore has improved offensively going into the re-match in Week 1.
Translation: Baltimore feels Flacco is good enough to carry a razor-thin receiving group.
Behind Boldin and Evans are Marcus Smith and David Reed (who is, incidentally, suspended for Week 1 after testing positive for a banned substance), who combined have exactly zero career catches. Add in second-year TE Ed Dickson, the Ravens are young, indeed.
Young doesn't necessarily equal bad, something the Steelers can attest to. But a quarterback has to be at the top of his game from a preparation standpoint if his receivers don't have enough experience to help carry the load. He didn't appear to be in rhythm with Boldin all of last year, as 2010 was the first time in his career Boldin played in all 16 games and didn't get to the 1,000 receiving mark plateau.
An argument can be made veterans were cut to make way for younger players, while sending the message this is Flacco's offense. And he very well could be poised to reach his self-proclaimed "I'm damn good" level, but he's going to have to go through the team that has ended his season twice in the past three years - not just in Week 1, but through the entire season.
Opponent Defensive Spotlight: LB Terrell Suggs
In 12 games against Pittsburgh, Suggs has 10.5 sacks. And he's looked flat-out unstoppable in the last three. PZB's All-Time Leader in Spotlight appearances had six sacks in those games, and was draped to Roethlisberger like a TMZ reporter.
Suggs has had a good career, and will be considered one of the better defensive players of his generation, but he's Lawrence-Taylor-like against Pittsburgh.
This is also Baltimore's first game with new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the team's former secondary coach. Pagano has a bit more returning in his secondary than his predecessor, Greg Mattison, who assumed the defensive coordinator job at the University of Michigan. With FS Ed Reed active in Week 1 - he missed the first six games of last season with a hip injury - and the return of veteran CB Domonique Foxworth, the Ravens front seven will have more opportunities to bring pressure on the QB.
Not that Suggs needs much strategy. He's found ways to disrupt the Steelers' offense for years, and it's not likely that will change in Week 1. The variety of looks Suggs is likely to show in Pagano's aggressive defensive play-calling is dangerous. Also, Suggs' ability to land home will force the Steelers to play in more protection fronts, which negates their ability to use their biggest advantage in this game - their 4-Wide set.
In the past, The Steelers have brought TE Heath Miller in the backfield to keep Roethlisberger vertical as long as possible, and to be a release outlet. Miller doesn't have the greatest straight ahead speed, and he's an excellent in-line blocker, so if the Ravens can force the Steelers to keep him in the backfield, they will shift the advantage Pittsburgh has in this phase of the game.
Most of that is on Suggs.
Steelers Spotlight: QB Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger summarized his career goals simply, "I might never win the passing title or be the league MVP, but I'm OK with that. I just want to win championships. I've got a lot of fingers left for rings and I want to win a lot more championships."
With the talent at quarterback in the NFL, and the style of play that makes Roethlisberger so successful (he's second behind Tom Brady for highest QB win percentage going into 2011), he's probably right.
But if Roethlisberger has ever had the chance to win an MVP, it's 2011.
He's never had the stable of talent around him as he does this year. A fearsome blend of speed, experience and depth, the Steelers offense looks as strong as it ever has in his career, and perhaps the most talented one in Pittsburgh since the end of the Steel Curtain era.
Along with that, he's got a chip on his shoulder.
He wants to be the guy known for winning big games. His colleague, Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers defense bumped him from his untarnished Super Bowl reputation, fittingly, in a very Roethlisberger-like hot-at-the-right-time playoff run.
The Steelers' offensive reload this offseason was more about internal development than free agency and the draft. RB Rashard Mendenhall was noticeably quicker and more agile in the preseason. Second TE David Johnson looked remarkably stronger in blocking as well as route-running. RB Isaac Redman looked impressive in short-yardage situations and in receiving.
Roethlisberger will have so many weapons on the field, the biggest challenge he has this season isn't scoring points, it's distributing the ball to his guys in a balanced way, which will create heartburn and insomnia among opposing defensive coordinators.
He has the keys to a Ferrari, and starting with Baltimore in Week 1, a critical early divisional game, he will show the NFL whether he can drive it. Can he atone for last year's big-game loss?
- Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have never been out of the top five in rushing yards allowed
- The Steelers have won their last eight season-opening games
- Including the playoffs, Pittsburgh has won its last seven games against AFC North opponents when Roethlisberger starts
- Steve McNair was Baltimore's quarterback the last time the Ravens beat Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger starts - that was 1,716 days ago.
Thursday Night Curse? The defending Super Bowl champion has won its 12th consecutive season-opener after the Packers held off New Orleans Thursday evening in Green Bay. The last eight season-openers have been played on Thursday night of Week 1, all at the home of the champs, all won by the champs. In fact, the sacrificial lamb chosen to play on the road in what is no doubt the drunkest night of the year go a combined 51-61 in those seasons. Only one - Indianapolis in 2004 - made the playoffs.