It should be this easy on Sunday in Pittsburgh: If you’re going to bet on someone, who’s it going to be: Ray Lewis? Or Charlie Batch?
Right. You’d bet on Ray, the Hall of Famer, over Charlie, the Hall of Lucky to Have a Job.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
As the Ravens have seen time and time again in Pittsburgh, you have to put together 60 minutes of football and you need all of your elements – offense, defense, special teams – clicking on all cylinders in order to have a chance to win.
I think the Ravens are winning on Sunday. Mostly, I think they’re winning because I don’t think they’re going to lose to Charlie Batch. I’m fairly certain I’d be picking Pittsburgh to win if Big Ben were in their lineup. But he’s not. And I just can’t see Batch doing enough to beat the Ravens.
If the Ravens lose to Charlie Batch, they should walk home.
I’m not going to go as far as calling Batch “semi-pro” the way Mike Preston of The Sun categorized the Browns as “semi-pro” last week…yeah, that same Browns team that took the Ravens to the final snap on Sunday. But I don’t think Batch is good enough – or will be, over 60 minutes – to beat Baltimore.
That said, I can also look back in the Ravens history under John Harbaugh and say, for sure, that Baltimore needs to play much better than they did in the Steel City in ’08 and ’09 in order to win there on Sunday.
First off, the most critical element of Sunday’s game from an offensive standpoint is for the Ravens to do three things:
A. Do not turn the ball over to Pittsburgh. It isn’t about giving the Steelers offense the ball. As the Ravens saw in the Jets game a few weeks back, if you turn it over to the other team and their offense stinks, you haven’t really done a whole lot of damage. Here’s the problem in Pittsburgh. When the Ravens have turned the ball over to Pittsburgh, they’ve given up points. Go back to the 2008 Monday nighter when Joe Flacco made his Heinz Field debut and engineered the Ravens to a 13-3 halftime lead. Early in the 3rd quarter, Flacco was sacked, lost the ball, and the Steelers rumbled into the end zone to begin their comeback. Fast forward to the AFC title game later that season. I won’t even mention the Polamalu pick at the end of the game that sealed the Steelers win because it makes my stomach turn.
You just can’t turn the ball over to those guys in Pittsburgh because they make you pay for it.
B. No matter how healthy Ray Rice is, the Ravens MUST use Le’Ron McClain as a tailback throughout Sunday’s game. Rice is a great back, but he doesn’t punish anyone. McClain is precisely the guy to use against Pittsburgh. It’s not about how many yards he gets, it’s about how hard he runs and how many defensive players he can bruise along the way. Using McClain early on Sunday might just be the tonic the Ravens need. If he can run over a few Black and Gold defensive players, that could soften them up for the likes of Rice and Willis McGahee.
C. Flacco MUST get off to a good start in the first half. He threw a pick in the first quarter of last December’s 23-20 heartbreaker at Heinz Field. In fact, the one obvious achilles heel for Joe as a professional has been his inability to get off to a good start on the road. Three regular season games stand out in 2009 — Joe was shockingly ineffective in the first half of three eventual road losses: at New England (losing 17-7 at half) at Minnesota (losing 14-3) and at Green Bay (losing 17-0). Even this season, Joe’s performance in the first half of the games at New York and Cincinnati wasn’t very good. It’s the one part of his game that still puzzles the staff and coaches in Owings Mills. Why can’t Joe play well in the first half of road games? This Sunday in Pittsburgh, his first half performance will once again be worth watching. And for the Ravens to win, he’ll need to protect the ball AND make the throws necessary to keep the Steelers defense honest.
Defensively, I expect the Ravens to pack 8 or 9 guys in the box and dare Charlie Batch and his receiving corps to beat them. The only receiver who is a downfield threat – Mike Wallace – needs to be monitored, obviously, but Fabian Washington is healthy and certainly capable of going toe-to-toe with Wallace. Hines Ward has always been a thorn in the Ravens’ side, but he’s not going to catch 10 balls for 110 yards and 3 TD’s. That’s just not his style. Pittsburgh has always built their offense on running the ball, even with Roethlisberger at quarterback, and Sunday won’t be any different. If they run for 125 yards as a team on Sunday, they’ll probably beat the Ravens. And I think the Ravens know that. And I assume Baltimore will pack the box and say “you’re not running on us…have Batch beat us.”
Special teams always seems to play a key role in Pittsburgh for some weird reason. Go back to that aforementioned Monday night loss in 2008. Sam Koch shanked a punt in the 3rd quarter (followed by a penalty from Jarrett Johnson) that gave the Steelers prime field position as they rebounded from a 13-3 intermission deficit. True, that’s very un-Koch-like, but he can’t have one of those “oops moments” at Heinz Field this Sunday. Two of Baltimore’s last three visits have been decided by a field goal — one of those coming in overtime. Their field goal kicker – Jeff Reed – has made a living out of kicking well in a stadium that isn’t always kind to kickers. The game this Sunday will be decided by LESS than 3 points, I believe. That means Billy Cundiff will play a critical role.
The final bullet-point for this Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh can go under the category of “play smart”. You can’t win a game in that place if you make dumb mistakes, take ill-timed penalties and do stupid things at the worst time. That means, among other things, you can’t hit a guy out of bounds after your punter shanks the ball (Johnson, 2008), you can’t hit a guy out of bounds after a kick-off (Darren Stone, 2009 AFC title game), you can’t get flagged for pass interference when the Steelers are on their own 5-yard line (Frank Walker, 2009), you can’t drop a pass when you’re wide open in the end zone with 5 minutes left in the game (Derrick Mason, 2010) and you can’t waste time-outs early in the 3rd quarter the way the Ravens occasionally have in the John Harbaugh era.
To beat the Steelers, with or without Roethlisberger at the helm, you have to play at the highest level, especially in Pittsburgh where the football gods always seem to be dressed in Black and Gold.
I’m not changing my tune: I can’t see the Ravens losing to Charlie Batch on Sunday. If that happens, it will tell us much more about Baltimore’s team than Pittsburgh’s team.