Sorry if I have been a bit absent lately. I have been following closely as my alma mater, the University of Michigan, makes a concerted effort to look as desperate and pathetic as possible on the national stage. Now that that’s over (we start back in earnest in the Fall), I can turn my attention back to Steelers Week.
What exactly separates the Ravens and the Steelers? Much is made of their defensive dominance (though Pittsburgh has the slight edge there, particularly rushing the passer), but mostly this is a wash between the two teams. The true battle is going to be which offense is able to create the big play that either gets them in field goal range or sees them running away from opposing defenders into the end zone. It seems as though in every game there has been a defining play that set up the winning score, since you won’t get many touchdowns trying to chip away at either defense. Where will that play come from? Who has the edge?
On the surface, one has to look first at Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace. I won’t hesitate to say that the Ravens do not have a single player who matches up with him speed-wise, since very few NFL teams do. Simply put, he is one of the most explosive receivers in the game, and the more of a factor he is, the more dangerous he is. In Pittsburgh’s Week 5 loss to the Ravens, he had just two catches for 24 yards. In their Week 13 win, he accumulated 5 catches for 76 yards, leading all Steelers receivers. But Wallace doesn’t just have straight-line speed. He is able to trip up defenders and turn a simple slant into an 80 yard score, forcing the coverage back and almost guaranteeing that he can get something out of an early throw. If the Ravens are ever forced to leave him on an island or without safety help over the top, Roethlisberger will recognize this and make them pay. If Wallace gets behind the safety… game over.
The Ravens unfortunately do not have a response to Wallace in their own receiving corp. Top to bottom they are certainly more polished than the Steelers, with Boldin, Houshmanzadeh, and Mason all having served as #1 receivers in their careers. But, with the occasional exception of Boldin, they are not big play threats. None of the Ravens receivers can even sniff Wallace’s 21 yards per catch. Donte Stallworth certainly has that deep speed, but has not become much of a part of the passing game- he has just two catches all season (active for just 7 games), though one of those was a 67 yarder against Pittsburgh. If Baltimore feels the need to respond going deep Stallworth could be a surprise option, but it wouldn’t fit with how they have used their receivers this season.
A bigger threat in the passing game could be Ray Rice, whose ability to make defenders miss is almost legendary in his third season. However, against this disciplined defense, even the best swing passes might not get more than a dozen yards- great production, but not a game-changing play. The best option on the Ravens might actually come from Willis McGahee, whose straight-line running approach could take advantage of any available opening and hit it hard enough to get to the second level. The Ravens tried to feed McGahee the ball in Week 13, running him 7 times to Rice’s 9, but he was unable to get anything going. McGahee might be a feast-or-famine back on Saturday, but I believe he has the best ability of either of the Ravens primary two backs to break a big run. That said, Baltimore would be wise to feed the ball to their backs more than 16 times in a defensive struggle like this.
The Steelers have their share of playmakers, and Rashard Mendenhall is certainly a threat to break through this Ravens defense that has been a bit shakier against the run than in years past. Hines Ward will make at least one infuriatingly open catch after pushing off of the cornerback, and Heath Miller will continue to be the poor man’s Todd Heap. That said, the Ravens appear to have more third-down playmakers than the Steelers- Heap, Derrick Mason, Ray Rice, and T.J. Houshmanzadeh are almost designed to create first downs on intermediate or long yardage. If there is a 40+ yard score however, the edge has to go to Pittsburgh. The Ravens do not have an answer for both Mike Wallace and Hines Ward, and Rashard Mendenhall is more likely to break a big run than either of the Ravens’ backs, though that is more due to the Baltimore front seven than anything else.
The Ravens and Steelers come into this weekend prepared for a defensive slugfest, but the game could be decided by a single score or big play that flips the momentum over. Historically the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger have been able to make that play. Baltimore will have to find its own playmakers in order to get their chance at the AFC title game.