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Steelers vs. Ravens: 2013 will bring with it changes just like 2010-11 did

In which the author proposes postponing the Ravens' coronation as 2013 Season Champions for a few more months...

Jared Wickerham

Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review is a relatively new staff writer on their sports roster. He has lots of good things to say and writes thoughtfully, but somehow or other he seems to set me off periodically. Today’s column was one of those.

Titled "Ravens are Ahead of Steelers, but Changes Can Come Swiftly," the writer, after the obligatory Joe Flacco quote, proceeds to compare the two teams as they enter next season. He doesn’t draw any conclusions, but the implication is clear, despite the article title. As he demonstrates, each position group has a veteran core which will return largely untouched for the Ravens, and each position group, other than quarterback and kick team, have major question marks for the Steelers.

He’s right. But interestingly, he begins his positional review with this:

When the Ravens won their other Super Bowl in 2000, they were 12-4 and the Steelers were third [in the division] at 9-7. But a season later, the Steelers went 13-3 to the Ravens’ 10-6 and beat Baltimore in the playoffs.

As I noted, he doesn’t draw any conclusions, but the slant he writes from makes it pretty clear he doesn’t, at least at the moment, see a repeat of 2001.

But before we go ahead and cede the AFC North to the Ravens next season, it might be worth looking at 2011. The Steelers, although they didn’t win the Super Bowl, had a chance to do so in the final few minutes of the game. As always, there were some changes during the following off-season, but a combination of keeping the majority of the team together and the lockout and consequent loss of OTAs and such meant the conventional wisdom was the Steelers were positioned to make another run. So what actually happened during 2011?

In case you were in a cave somewhere and missed it, the season began with a game between the Ravens, losers of the AFC divisional game, and the Steelers, losers of the Super Bowl. The studly Steelers, bristling with battle-tested veterans and Pro Bowlers, marched into Baltimore to play a gutted Ravens offense. Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, and Derrick Mason were gone.

While McGahee was not a surprise, Mason and Heap were the best players at their positions in the history of the franchise. Heap was replaced with a couple of rookies, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Mason was replaced with an old-ish free agent (Anquan Boldin,) who many felt had left his best days behind him, and a draft pick, Torrey Smith.

We all know how the game came out. (No cave is THAT deep.) And while the Steelers went on to win 12 games, they were swept by the Ravens (the second game won on a hail Mary pass to Smith) and lost in the wild card round. By the time they lost, the team was a mass of injuries, and a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger was pretty much ineffective. The Ravens went on to lose to the Patriots, just, in the AFC Championship round.

Am I saying this proves the Ravens are going to regress next season? Well, no. But while Robinson’s points are valid, they are scarcely the whole story. We won’t know what the story is for sure until this time next year. Here are his main points:

Offense: The quarterback situation is fairly equivalent. The Ravens are much better off at wide receiver. Four of their five offensive linemen will return, and will be much more experienced than the presumed Steelers line of mainly inexperienced young-uns and Maurkice Pouncey. The Ravens have Ray Rice and Vonta Leach—the Steelers have a bunch of question marks.

Defense: All the Ravens’ defensive linemen will return. Casey Hampton will probably be gone, and "even more pressure [will be put] on Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon to produce." The Ravens will have the most movement in their linebackers of any position group on the team, as Ray Lewis is leaving and Dannell Ellerbe is a free agent. There are questions about James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Larry Foote (in Foote and Harrison’s case, one of the questions is whether they will be back, although Robinson doesn’t say that.) In the secondary, both Cary Williams and Ed Reed are free agents on the Ravens' side; Steeler Keenan Lewis is also a free agent.

Special teams: The punters and kickers for both teams are under contract. Robinson neglects to note longsnapper Greg Warren (Steelers) is not.

Although Robinson pulled out a bit of doom and gloom on the defense, his detailing of the offense was what really made one feel one should mothball the Terrible Towel for a few years. But before we all just join a bowling league, let’s look at it from another angle.

When Todd Haley was in his second year as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, the team went from 4 wins in 2009 to 10 wins, and won the AFC West for the first time since 2003. Hopes were high for the 2011 season. The Chiefs managed to squeeze in ahead of the Ravens after trading down in the first round and picked up receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who would take some pressure off Dwayne Bowe. They also picked up Steve Breaston in free agency. They added needed depth on defense. The stars seemed to be aligning.

But the first loss was offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss, who left for Florida. During training camp Jonathan Baldwin was proving even more diva-ish and difficult than usual, and missed a good portion of the season with a hand injury sustained in a locker room fight. Tight end Tony Moeki, safety Eric Berry, and running back Jamaal Charles were lost for the season by mid-September. As Football Outsiders told Joel Thorman of Arrowhead Pride, "[t]hat's their best offensive player, their second-best defensive player (behind Tamba Hali) and another guy in their top ten, each out for all or most of the season. And nothing like that has happened to a team this century." This didn’t even take Baldwin into account, nor a number of other injuries. The Chiefs, whom many thought were poised for a serious run in the post-season, instead lost their first two games in this fashion: vs. Buffalo Bills, 7-41; at Detroit Lions, 3-48. They were 4-4 at mid-season, and after Game 13 Todd Haley was fired.

This is one of the better cautionary tales to those who would try to predict the outcome of next season. Alan Robinson is careful, as noted, not to make any actual predictions. What he says is, "how do the Ravens and Steelers match up right now for 2013?" The truth is, though, how the Ravens and Steelers match up right now says absolutely nothing about the probable outcome of next season. For instance, the Ravens could be suddenly bitten, and even harder and in more critical places, by the injury bug.

Although the Ravens sustained a number of injuries in the 2012 season, they were essentially all in the defense, and were all early enough so the player could either return (as did Lewis and Suggs) or their replacement got considerable game experience (as with Cary Williams et al in the secondary.) The offense, in the meantime, was able to carry the team when the defense was faltering, and the defense was rounding into typical form by the time they reached the playoffs.

This isn't the only factor to consider, though. For that matter, both the Bengals and the Browns have made substantial strides. Cincinnati, with a good draft and good luck in the injury department, could win the division. Cleveland has a much better chance of being a contender than they have had for some time. The days of assuming the AFC North is the "Division of Champions, and the Browns" may be coming to an end, and quickly.

I'm not opposed to facing facts, but "facts" are pretty hard to come by at this point, and even expected factors, such as injuries, can have unexpected consequences. If nothing else, one can assume Joe Flacco, having never missed a game, ever, in his entire life, is "due." (I know, that's not how statistics works, much less genetics. But there is also regression towards the mean, and the Ravens' offense is definitely due for some of that...) I don't contend Robinson's points, just the need to jump to the obvious conclusion. Because however optimistic the title of the article may have sounded, he left the reader with little to hope for.