Tonight, viewers across the nation will get another opportunity to witness the greatest rivalry in sports today when the Pittsburgh Steelers square off against their hated rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, in the friendly confines of Heinz Field. Maybe I should clarify the aforementioned statement a little. The best rivalry in the NFL. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry in college football, which takes the whole hated-rivals scenario — and the lengths some fans will take to prove it — to an entirely different level.
This is a home game for the Steelers, and they have to hold serve at home in this rivalry because it’s so difficult to win in Baltimore. Ben Roethlisberger has been more successful than most, and they did win there last season, but it’s always a tough endeavor, to say the least. It seems Big Ben owns the state of Ohio, but Baltimore has been his own personal house of horrors. There have been blowout losses, a broken nose, too many late hits to mention and, of course, the devastating collision served up by Bart Scott which would have killed a lesser man. If a defender impacted a passer in today’s NFL, as Scott did, he would go directly to jail and would not pass “Go.”
This week’s game finds both teams entering the fray with more questions than answers. This is a rare occurrence for two of the most established franchises in the league.
With GM Ozzie Newsome at the helm, the Ravens have won two Super Bowls and been a perennial playoff contender. It seems they’re always one of the top defenses in the league. Lately, they’ve struggled to remain a contender, as they try to overcome the loss of franchise cornerstones Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and no doubt future Hall member Ed Reed — all the while being saddled with the albatross contract of Joe Flacco hanging around their necks. This past offseason, the Ravens brought in a whole new group of wide receivers and tight ends, as well as drafting Heisman Trophy winning QB Lamar Jackson, in an attempt to light the proverbial fire under their presumably unmotivated franchise quarterback.
So far, their offseason additions have had the desired effects. Flacco seems to have gotten his mojo back and has played at a remarkably efficient level. All of the skill-position players have been involved and effective, and the offense appears to be a potent unit at first glance. But is everything as positive as it seems?
For starters, the Ravens absolutely crushed the hapless Buffalo Bills in a home game to start the season. Have I mentioned how good the Ravens are at home? This was also a Bills team which decided it was a good idea to march out Nathan Peterman as their starting QB for the season opener. Yes, the same Nathan Peterman who threw five interceptions in the first half of his first career start last season against the Chargers. His first-quarter performance against the Ravens resembled a dream sequence from a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and it only got worse from there. Final score was Ravens 47 - Bills 3. I’m not sure what can be learned from that debacle, unless it’s never to anoint Nathan Peterman as your starting QB. To be fair, it did shield young-stud passer Josh Allen from a traumatic welcome to the NFL moment. It could have scarred him for life.
The Ravens would then go on to lose their next game against the Cincinnati Bengals on the road on Thursday Night football. Andy Dalton is a bona fide, established NFL QB and he proceeded to team up with A.J. Green and friends to bring the Ravens back to earth — and in some ways, the fans and announcers back to reality.
Then this past Sunday the Ravens won a hard fought contest against the Denver Broncos. The Broncos shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with ill-timed penalties, which just so happens to also be one of the Steelers’ specialties. Best in the league actually. That’s one stat I don’t think anyone is too proud of and it needs to be addressed immediately.
Honestly, the Ravens played very well. Flacco was motivated and engaged. He protected the football, made the correct reads and adjustments, and was extremely accurate throwing the football. Probably his best overall performance in quite a few years. That’s not a good sign for the Steelers, as he’s enjoyed more success at Heinz Field than most QBs can claim.
On defense against the Broncos, the Ravens pass-rush created havoc throughout the game for Denver QB Case Keenum, consistently collapsing the pocket. But there were open receivers aplenty whenever the line could provide Keenum with a modicum of time to throw. This week’s contest could come down to which offensive line performs best and which team avoids those crippling turnovers and penalties.
The rookies from both teams will hear all week about the physicality of the matchup they are about to experience first hand, but they’ll still be taken aback by the ferocity of it. The intensity is immediately taken to another level that’s hard to put into words. Some players will rise to the occasion and perform, while others will wilt under the pressure.
This week is the perfect opportunity for the Steelers to prove they are who we thought they were — a powerful offense capable of rewriting the team's record books plus improved tackling on defense that would stymie the running game and create opportunities to build on last season's league-leading pass rush. We’ve seen glimpses of both so far this season, but that’s been it — only glimpses and no consistency.
This week's game isn't what the league offices had in mind with all of the offseason rule changes. The physical nature of this matchup could get out of hand quickly considering what’s at stake and the shared loathing between the combatants. So expect a deluge of yellow flags to rain down on Heinz Field in an attempt by officials to stem the tide.
Better double check that chin-strap and give those shoulder pads one last pop.
Buckle up...it’s about to get real.
This should be fun.