Enough already! Getting to this point after waiting eight days for this game has been a lot of fun, but my patience is wearing thin. All the talk is done and now we must walk the walk. The 2-0 Baltimore Ravens venture into a hostile environment as they head up to Pittsburgh to face the 2-1 Steelers on Monday Night Football. Now we all know and are trying to forget what happened last season in this exact game. The Steelers dismantled and embarassed the Ravens (actually, the Ravens did a pretty good job of embarassing themselves) by scoring four TD's in the first quarter and putting the game out of reach before it was 15 minutes old on their way to a 38-7 beatdown. I remember the weather was typical Pittsburgh poor, it was their 75th Anniversary Celebration of the greatest all-time Steelers and all the old greats were in attendance. The team and their fans were psyched out of their skulls, while the Ravens came in bruised and battered, missing their best pass rusher and both starting corners. Roethlisberger picked them apart like they were the practice squad and the Ravens laid just another egg on the prime time stage.
Everyone in Baltimore loves to see their Ravens on national TV. The fact is, however, that the Ravens rarely look good when on in prime time. Hopefully, the trend stops tonight and the Ravens look good enough to be considered a contender for the AFC North division title, whether or not they walk away with a victory. Winning on the road in the NFL is still a tough task. Winning on the road on Monday Night Football is even tougher. If the Ravens keep it close and prove they belong in conversations about the competition for the division title, then that will go a long way to making the rest of the season enjoyable as we wait for a rematch in Baltimore later this season.
In order for the Ravens to compete and possibly win this game, they will have to do three basic things. If the defense can put the same sort of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger that the Eagles did last week, then he won't have the luxury of time to pick us apart like he did last year. We already know their running game is compromised and they've rarely succeeded against us via the rush. Pass pressure will have Roethlisberger running for his life and while he is among the best at throwing on the run, he is hurting in his shoulder and hand and will not be able to sustain a brutal pass rush all game if the Ravens hit him again and again.
Next, the Ravens must be able to move the ball offensively on the ground. The run is one of the main reasons that rookie QB Joe Flacco has been able to succeed the first two games. A pounding running attack with our three headed trio of rushers (McGahee, McClain, Rice) has beaten down both Cincinnati and Cleveland, although the Steelers have one of the top defenses in the league. However, the loss of nose tackle Casey Hampton to injury will not help them contain the Ravens' run game. The offensive line has pushed the defensive front backwards so far this season and plan to continue the same thing tonight.
That leads us to the third main point in order for the Ravens to fly out of Steeltown with an impressive victory. That same o-line that has opened holes for the run game must also protect Flacco when he drops back to pass. He already will be trying to deal with the enemy fans screaming at the top of their lungs every time he tries to call a play. The Steelers won't lie down or try cheap tactics like the past two Ravens' opponents. They have held their three opponents to a combined total of 42 points, including only 15 to a high powered Eagles offense in their only loss. The Steelers will throw everything at Flacco to try to confuse him and we all remember how often linebacker James Harrison was in the Ravens backfield every time they tried to pass last year. Retired Ravens quarterback Steve McNair still wakes up at night expecting Harrison to be in bed next to him! However, the Ravens young offensive line has performed admirably so far this year and are relying on their youth, athleticism and size to keep the Steelers vaunted pass rush away from their prized rookie. Protecting him from the Steelers will give him the time to find his open receivers. He won't have to run for his life or flinch every time he sees those black and gold jerseys near him. Turnovers rule the pro game and if Flacco can keep his to a minimum, the Ravens will have a great chance to steal one from the Steelers.
If the three things noted above come into view and hold true, then there is no reason that the Ravens can compete in this game until the end and even win it. Baltimore is resting a lot of their success tonight on their defense and plan on winning the turnover battle to give their rookie QB a short field and less pressure to drive the ball all the way down the field to score. A couple of turnovers deep in Steeler territory will allow the offense to score on a short field and therefore put the pressure on Big Ben and the Steelers offense. Of course, to expect having everything go our way is a big expectation and will be a tough task for the upstart Ravens. If they do, they will be one of only three unbeatens in the NFL and set up a battle of unbeatens next week in Baltimore when the 4-0 Tennessee Titans come to town.
However, that's a long way in the future, with tonight's game the prime objective. Earlier this summer (July 1st posting), I predicted the Steelers would roll in this game (30-13). After the early season success of the Ravens and the chinks in the armor of the Steelers we've seen, this game is definitely win-able if the cards all fall into place. Unfortunately, I can't see our luck holding true for all 60 minutes and while I'd love to eat my words, I am still expecting a Steelers victory in a hard fought game that will define our season as we fight until the end and impress a national TV audience. Hope I'm wrong and as they say in the UFC, "Let's get it on!"
NOTE: I will hosting an "Open Thread" during tonight's game. Log on and post your comments along w/ me as the game progresses. Hopefully, we'll have a lot to cheer about together!