For the good part of the four seasons that have passed since Bruce Arians began calling the plays for the Steelers, about 95% of the black and gold faithful — myself included — have questioned at times how the man passed first grade, let alone become offensive coordinator for one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports. Maybe it’s because of the contrast between he and his defensive mastermind and Hall of Fame counterpart, Dick LeBeau. Maybe it’s because Ben Roethlisberger isn’t talented enough to run a pass-heavy offense. Maybe it’s due to a lack of consistent pass protection. Maybe he really does have an IQ that matches his age. Or maybe… he’s been lurking in the shadows all this time, patiently waiting for everything to fall into place.
It’s something we’ve seen flashes of over the past four years — Ben’s Pro Bowl season in ’07 and 4,000 yard season in ’09 especially come to mind — an extremely potent and dangerous offense that’s up there with the likes of the Colts, Patriots, Saints, etc. For some reason, though, it’s never consistently clicked the way it should and has always given the sense of having something missing. That is, until now.
With the help, of course, of Coach Tomlin and the front office, Big Daddy Bruce (as I’ve come to affectionately call him) has spent his days as offensive coordinator trying to find the right pieces to make this work. Finally, he has them all:
Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Antonio Browns, Emmanuel Sanders and even guys like Jerricho Cotchery, Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman. Anyway you want your offense served, the Steelers have it. And for the first time since Arians was promoted from his post at wide receivers coach, all of his key players not only possess an unreal amount of talent, but perhaps more importantly are all veterans well-versed in the playbook in its entirety — throughout the preseason we’ve all seen what Brown has done to step his game up, and judging by the snaps he got in the Panthers game, it appears Sanders hasn’t missed a step while nursing a foot injury.
On top of all of this, Big Ben has been working his ass off (part of his “retransformation” following the Milledgeville incident) and seems to be hungry to get his game as perfect as possible. By all reports and appearances, it’s paying off. He’s also finally gotten the green light to run the no-huddle offense a lot more this season, which is possibly the most underrated attribute of his game and something fans have been clamoring for more of for ages.
Bottom line? This offense has a legit chance to be downright scary. I’m talking BR putting up MVP numbers (which, by the way, I’m calling now) and one-of-the-best-offenses-in-franchise-history scary. I’m not joking. Anybody who has watched the starters play in the preseason has seen glimpses of it light up the scoreboard (at least 20 1st half points in each their final three games). I know, I know, “preseason, shmeseason”, but that’s the very beauty of it, folks: what we’ve seen has only been a dumbed-down version of it.
It’s to the point where I’m not even sure there’s a need to worry about the defense. We all know what we have there; for most part it is made up of the same starters it has been for years. They may be getting old and have some holes, but that’s okay because the game plan this year is relatively simple: outscore the opponent. Could they regress? Sure, in fact it’s likely. But as long as Troy Polamalu can stay healthy, the defense will be at least somewhat in the vicinity of being as good as it was last season, and if the offense can be as explosive as it looks like it can be, that should be more than enough to win, at the absolute least, 11 games this season.
Brucey, baby. I apologize for all of the harsh words I’ve had for you over the years. No hard feelings? I now realize it was all just the calm before the storm, but now Hurricane Arians is heading straight in our direction and has it’s sights set squarely on getting that Lombardi back to where it really belongs. That Green Bay and Lombardi connection is all just a technicality. The Steelers own this league, and the league will be reminded of that fact this season, as soon as Hurricane Arians first makes landfall. And boy, do I feel sorry for wherever that happens to be …
The Ravens, by all appearances, are going in the complete opposite direction of the Steelers. They’ve taken steps back in recent years, in my opinion, and don’t seem to have a clue to what it is exactly they’re trying to accomplish.
Over the summer for example, they released/lost the following veterans: TE Todd Heap (Steeler killer extraordinaire), DT Kelly Gregg, RB Willis McGahee, FB Le’Ron McClain, WR Derrick Mason (Steeler killer extraordinaire), OT Jared Gaither, CBs Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington and SS Dawan Landry, which is basically half of their starting team last year and 3/4 of their starting secondary.
My immediate thoughts were that the team was unloading in order to make room for some big acquisitions, and frankly, I was kind of nervous about it. Nnamdi Asomugha? Santonio Holmes? Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie? What were they up to?
Vonta Leach, Ricky Williams and Lee Evans?
Look, Leach may be one of the best fullbacks in the league, Lee Evans a decent number two receiver, and Ricky Williams an okay backup for Ray Rice, but the Ravens were supposed to be in the “window” of their opportunity to bring another championship back to the Ratbird nest right now. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis certainly aren’t getting any younger (or in Reed’s case, healthier). Once those guys retire, what are you left with? Do you really plan on rebuilding this team around Joe “LOL” Flacco or Ray Rice? This kind of decision-making is the exact reason the Ravens always have been and always will be a perennial second place team in the AFC North. Point blank, purr’d.
As for the game at hand, the biggest factors are exactly the one’s mentioned above. Without further ado…
When the Steelers have the ball:
The Ravens front seven is mostly the same as last year. Cory Redding, Terrence Cody, and Haloti Ngata bolster the defensive line. Usual suspects (pun intended) Jarret Johnson, Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain and Terrell Suggs start at linebacker. This is going to be the strength of the Ravens (as usual) and should eliminate any chances the Steelers have at trying to establish a running game (as usual). Which means…
The Steelers are going to hope to get adequate pass protection and attempt to air this one out. These guys can still bring the heat on the quarterback with the best of them, especially Terrell Suggs, who has approximately 9 sacks in every game he plays against the Steelers.
If Ben can get time, though, there’s lot to be optimistic about. The team’s starting cornerbacks on Sunday will be Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams. The combined total games started between these two? One – Smith was the team’s first round draft pick this year and Williams is a 4-year veteran who started one game in 2009. Domonique Foxworth was supposed to be a starter this season, but struggled in the preseason as he doesn’t appear to be fully recovered from the torn ACL that put him on IR in 2010. He and Chris Carr will handle nickle and dime duties. Rounding out the secondary at safety is yet another new starter — Tom Zbikowski — and of course, Ed Reed.
Outside of Reed (who routinely disappears against the Steelers, anyway) you can see the Ravens secondary isn’t much to write home about. With all of the offensive talent the Steelers will be throwing against them on Sunday, there should be mismatches a plenty — but how much time will they have to develop?
When the Ravens have the ball:
The front seven. What do you even need to write about these guys? You know the crew: Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel are up front. James Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, and LaMarr Woodley behind them. A Little Debbie has a better chance of getting past Casey Hampton’s locker than Ray Rice does of getting past these guys and gashing the defense for huge gains. This unit has been one of the most consistent in NFL history over the past decade and things surely aren’t about to change this week.
Much like the Steelers, the only chance the Ravens have of moving the chains on Sunday is through the air. Unfortunately for Flacco, it’s not going to be as easy. The pass-rush will be relentless as ever. In the secondary, Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu all return to the starting roles we’re all now very much accustomed to. Keenan Lewis and William Gay play in situational roles. As stated earlier, these guys surely have their weaknesses, but I do not expect them to be exposed too much this week. Outside of Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and the pass-catching abilities of Ray Rice, this offense is now almost completely void of any playmakers. Guys like David Reed, rookie Torrey Smith, and Ed Dickson are some of the “weapons” Flacco will have to choose from this season, to name a few. Not exactly The Greatest Show on Turf.
One of the most played out sub-plots of this game from a reporting standpoint comes from the heavy criticism Joe Flacco’s received this off-season, especially from guys like Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley. While I am definitely sick of hearing about it, I actually think this could be one of the biggest influences on the actual outcome of the game. Think about it: the media said Flacco can’t beat the Steelers, then Steelers players came out and said they were right, and now he has that same team waltzing INTO Baltimore for Week 1? Win and he has the monkey off his back. Lose and he might not ever recover. This might be the most pressure he’s ever had on him to this point in his career and I fully expect him to fold like a lawn chair… and then catch on fire.
Wild Cards and Other Random Notes:
— M&T Bank Stadium has been a nightmare for the Steelers over the past decade: they have a 2-6 record there since 2003, though it should be noted those 2 wins came in 2 of the 3 past seasons
— The Steelers have been world beaters on opening day recently, with an NFL best 8 straight opening game victories by an average of nearly 15 points
— The last two openers for the Steelers have gone into OT (Steelers 15, Falcons 9; Steelers 13, Titans 10)
— Ben Roethlisberger is 6-0 against Joe Flacco and 9-2 against the Ravens (bet you didn’t know that one!)
— Hines Ward is 2 TDs away from moving into a tie for 13th all-time in receiving TDs, and 150 yards away from moving into the top-20 all-time in receiving yards, both of which should happen sometime within the next month. What a career. Ward’s days are surely almost numbered in Pittsburgh, so appreciate this legend for what he is while we still have a chance.
— IT’S FINALLY BACK!
Previous Meeting: Steelers won 31-24 in the 2011 AFC Divisional Playoffs
All-time Record: Steelers lead the series 18-12
Broadcast Info: 1 p.m. CBS — Jim Nantz, Phil Simms (Coverage Map)
Spread: Steelers +2.5
Based on how these games usually go, all of my logic is telling me to go with a close game, but my logic is also telling me this very well may be one of those rare mismatches between the teams that tend to pop up every so often. My gut feeling is normally a pretty nervous one during Ravens Week, but for the first time in as long as I can remember this rivalry, I have a good feeling about this one.
The Steelers offensive line is the key, plain and simple. The fact that this is Week 1 and they’re all playing on fresh legs is huge. If they play well enough (and despite my optimism I do acknowledge that’s still a pretty big “if”) the Steelers should cruise. I know most are probably expecting another one of those classic Ravens/Steelers defensive chess matches, but I will not be surprised in the least if this is a blowout. I’ll go down the middle and say it’s a game statistically dominated by the Steelers, but not as much with the score. Big games from BR, Dick LeBeau and the defense as a whole.
Steelers 20, Ravens 7