Let's imagine for a second that we were out of the playoff hunt. Even though I'd most certainly be discouraged, and less excited about the slate of other good matchups this weekend, I'd still be pumped up for the Steelers 15th game. Why? We're playing the Ravens. I hate the Ravens.
When Baltimore Has the Ball...
Baltimore enters Week 16 as the #3 seed in the AFC with a 11-3 record. They have lost just once to Cincinnati since their BYE in Week 7, the same week that head coach Brian Billick fired long-time friend Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator and took over the play-calling duties for Baltimore. The Ravens' offense has undeniably been better since then, as Baltimore has failed to score fewer than 20 points just once during their impressive 8-1 stretch.
Baltimore has benefited greatly from the lack of injuries to their offensive line. Jonathan Ogden, who will returning to Honalulu this year, anchors the line, but Jason Brown, Mike Flynn, Keydrick Vincent, and Tony Pashos are no slouches either. Credit this unit for keeping QB Steve McNair off his back for most of the year.
RB Jamaal Lewis is doing what most good running backs do: improving as the season progresses. There were big question marks surrounding Jamaal Lewis prior to this season. Would he be able to stay healthy? Even if he did, would he have the same explosiveness that he had when he was near the top of the NFL in all major statistical categories for RBs several years ago?
Lewis has answered those questions, although probably not as definitively as most Ravens fans would like. Lewis is averaging 3.7 yards per carry, a decent, but certainly not great clip. Lewis is just 14 yards shy of 1000 for the year; if he were to get there, it would be the fifth time in 6 seasons that he would have eclipsed the 1000 yard mark.
The last time the two teams met, we all know what happened. Big Ben was still in turnover mode, throwing two picks, and coughing up a critical fumble in the 3rd quarter that was returned for a TD. Our defense that day, although not terrible, was not playing anywhere near as well as it is now. Sure we've improved against inferior competition, but football is a game of momentum, and we definitely have it on our side right now. In our 27-0 loss to the Ravens, we gave up a total of 114 yards on the ground. Again, not terrible, but not great. Steve McNair also completed 66% of his passes, including a slew of 3rd down conversions.
This game will be about our offense though. Will we stick with the run, even if the sledding is tough early on? We abandoned the run completely last time we played, giving the ball only 10 times to Willie Parker. Big Ben threw the ball 41 times. That's unacceptable against a team that is quite capable at confusing offensive lines with their blitz schemes.
I will breakdown what we have to do when we have the ball shortly.
Let me leave you with this anecdote for now. The last time we met, we were 4-6. We all felt the game was a turning point in our season. If we had won, we all felt it would perhaps not be too late to make a run at the playoffs. Of course we were all deflated after the embarrassing defeat, and felt our season was all but over. Since then, a series of fortunate events has occurred, coupled with our strong play, to vault us back into contention for a Wild Card berth.
So, here we are now again playing the Ravens with our backs again against the wall. We're all cautiously optimistic (some of us more than others) of our chances if we're able to get through this game. How disappointing would it be if Baltimore was the team that officially put the nail in the coffin for the Steelers' 2006 season? Very. Let's get it done boys.