The Ravens are coming off a tough loss in Cincinnati while the Steelers are coming off a complete annihilation of the Indianapolis Colts. With both teams at 5-3, this looks to spice up a matchup that is already muy caliente. November football is here in style!
Q1: Cortez Allen just got benched, which is either incredibly upsetting to the Ravens or an even better blessing to them. Who do you expect the Ravens to target in that secondary at this point and do you think the Ravens win that matchup regularly?
A: If I’m the Ravens, I’m probably going to utilize the advantages I have in the short passing game. The Ravens have a good running game, and with that, they can utilize their tight ends off play action. Joe Flacco probably sweat as much as a sea lion in January in Week 2, and a big part of that was simply playing a controlled, rhythm-based passing game, and letting the run game set that up. That said, I’m changing that approach the second I see No. 28 step on the field. If he gets on the field (and the Ravens will spread with four receivers at some point to try to force the Steelers to put Allen on the field), I’m going to test him vertically through land, air and sea. I may do that anyway, looking more to test Brice McCain outside the numbers. Generally speaking, though, a team goal would be 10 combined targets to my tight ends in the 7-11 range, force the Steelers linebackers off the ball a bit to really open up my stretch zone plays.
Q2: Big Ben just went wild on the Colts last week as we all know. Is that really the capability of this offense and Big Ben at this point of his career or were the Colts just trying to figure out if the support staff (waterboy, uniform washer, etc) could play football?
A: I’m not sure if you watched that game or not, but a player doesn’t complete 40 passes for 522 yards on an accident. He was completing passes all over the field before and after Vonta Davis’s injury, and outside of that, it was the same Colts defense that held down Baltimore to a degree. While I don’t think any offense in the history of the game can be expected to unleash that kind of performance on a consistent basis, I don’t think reasonable expectations are too far from that. Roethlisberger had boatloads of time and he delivered accurate passes deeper down the field. While some in the past may be attributable to a great run-after-catch tandem in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, this was really about the protection and the throw. I think the better question here is whether he can put up another outstanding performance in Week 9. There’s a reason Ben is now the only player in league history to have thrown for over 500 yards in a game twice (read: it doesn’t happen often, let alone in consecutive weeks) but he is capable of leading this offense to 450-ish yards and 30-ish points. Doing that against the Ravens is exceedingly difficult, but if he gets the kind of protection he got in Week 8, I could see him having another big game. The Steelers have great athleticism among their receivers and against a beaten up Ravens secondary, if he gets time, he’s going to get the ball down the field on schedule. A big if.
Q3: The Steelers defense hasn't been all that great all year long, yet they actually rank better in passing yards allowed per game than the Ravens and they aren't all that far behind in rushing yards allowed per game. Then you look at the scores of their games and they are barely squeaking by teams like Cleveland and Jacksonville. What is up with this defense and is it finally coming into form at the mid-season mark or did they just hit some matchups that worked better for them?
A: I seem to recall another team "barely squeaking by" the Cleveland Browns. It’s a good time to point out every team in the AFC North is over .500, and it’s not an accident. Cleveland’s a competitive team. As for Jacksonville, the Steelers allowed nine points in that game, there are plenty of others to point at in terms of backing up claims of their mediocrity. A good example, though, is against Baltimore in Week 2. It felt worse than 26-6, but statistically, the Ravens didn’t throttle them the way it appeared. Definitely a strong all-around game, but less than 400 yards of offense and after three takeaways from a defense that really dominated the game, one might have thought the offense had a huge amount of success as well. But no, the Steelers defense has not been consistently good by any stretch. I’m surprised they are allowing fewer passing yards per game, and I think that speaks more to neither franchise performing well in that regard – which is odd. It’s been an issue of a lot of newer guys coming together over time, and in that, producing at a decent level here and there. Fell apart late against Tampa Bay, thoroughly dominated Carolina. Couldn’t stop Baltimore for anything, put the screws to Jacksonville. Got great pressure against Indianapolis but a confidence-shattered cornerback gave up three plays of 40 yards or more. It’s been things like that; one step forward followed quickly by one step backward. They haven’t played their best game yet, and they’ll be challenged to a high degree this week, just like they were last week.
Q4: So you guys finally brought back old man Harrison. How is he doing out there?
A: James Harrison has been doing pretty not-bad so far. I thought he played very well against Indianapolis (credited with two sacks), and he’s taking over the starting and primary role from Arthur Moats. He doesn’t get to abuse Michael Oher anymore, unfortunately, and his production against Eugene Monroe could be the critical factor in this game. I think it’s fairly obvious he’s not 2008 James Harrison, but he’s providing a spark, and unlike certain other former Steelers outside linebackers, he’s actually on the field, which, as it turns out, is a key factor in a player’s success. The real question, and it’s something I’m fairly certain John Harbaugh is going to want to find out in this game, is how well he’ll play against a no-huddle offense. I think Baltimore is going to try to test the Steelers’ stamina (a factor in their early season slide on defense), and see if they can’t just out-run them in the second half. If it’s close, don’t be surprised if Baltimore opens that up and tries to just work the Steelers to exhaustion.
Q5: Mean Joe Greene is getting his jersey retired during this game. A great player for so long and a major piece of this Steelers franchise for so long (both on and off the field). What current player could you say has the best chance of being looked at in the same way at the end of their time with the Steelers?
A: There isn’t one. Period. No current player on any team should be held in the same regard as Charles Edward "Mean Joe" Greene. The things that man did on a field are absolutely unreal. No defensive lineman ever commanded as much attention from an offensive game plan as Greene did. Watch the Steelers’ first championship (Super Bowl IX), a win over the Vikings. Greene is being triple-teamed, and he’s still bowling over guys on his way to the ball. The Vikings were a good running team and had Hall of Fame players on that line, Greene whipped them like a collection of Oniel Cousins and Jonathan Scotts. As far as any current player having their jersey formally retired (only one right now has been formally retired, Ernie Stautner’s No. 70), Roethlisberger is the most obvious, and I would imagine his will be retired down the line at some point. There are a few I’d put over him right now (Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, and Ben shouldn’t have that before Bradshaw does. Terry will have waited four decades or more, Ben can wait too, neither of them were to their positions as the three aforementioned players were in comparison to their peers around the league). One to watch now, though, is Antonio Brown. Granted, stats often reflect the era in which a player plays, but Brown, at age 26, has 321 career catches in 62 career games. A big game Sunday vs. Baltimore (148 receiving yards) would put him over 1,000 for the season, the fastest a Steelers receiver would have accomplished that mark. He’s on pace for 120 catches, 1,704 yards and 14 touchdowns, which, I think is safe to say, would be by far the best single season a Steelers receiver has ever had, and one that would stand out among the top in the history of the game. Now, I recognize the strong possibility he finishes with fewer than 120 catches and 1,700 yards, but Brown is still very young and he is only getting better.
Q6: What Ravens player would you take for the Steelers (contracts aside)?
A: There are a lot of them. I think Ben would have some fun throwing to both Brown and Steve Smith. I’ve really liked what Darryl Smith has done in his stint in Baltimore (a largely and unfairly unrecognized player). Mosley is a great player and will continue to be that way. I haven’t given up on Lardarius Webb, who, before a few injuries, rightly should have been placed around the same level as Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman as the top players at the position. Just to keep him off the field against the Steelers, gimme Haloti Ngata, and just for the sheer volume of pageviews that would come from the announcement of him joining the Steelers, gimme Terrell Suggs. Ultimately, though, I think I’d want Webb or Jimmy Smith. The Steelers are a tad light on cornerbacks, and both their athleticism and size might help coax a few more sacks out of a defensive front seven that gets pressure but few sacks. Their quickness and playmaking ability might get a rare Steelers interception in the short-to-middle ranges, and this offense can work well if given another possession or two a game.