Deep down, everyone knew that the playoff road for the 2009 Ravens would have to go through Heinz Field in Week 16. That week is here, even if the order is different than most had it. Instead of the Ravens and Steelers playing for the AFC North title, it’s survival time for Pittsburgh, and a chance for Baltimore to close the door on its most-bitter rival while taking a big step toward the playoffs.
The Ravens won the first meeting in overtime in a game that many thought would be a Baltimore blowout with the absence of QB Ben Roethlisberger. Dennis Dixon managed to get the Steelers to overtime, but an interception and subsquent field goal gave the Ravens a huge victory at home.
This time, Roethlisberger and the man who criticized him for not playing in the first meeting, Hines Ward, will play in this one. But Pittsburgh will be without safety Troy Polamalu once again. Pittsburgh is 3-0 with him in the lineup, but 4-7 without.
To get the cliches out of the way early, the game will be a physical, brutal affair once again. These two clubs play hard against each other, and revel in leaving the winner bruised and bloodied from the fight. The loser drags their wounded back to the locker room and wonder if they’ll have enough bodies for the next game.
Since the emphasis for both clubs is not allow the other to score, how do the Ravens and Steelers dent the scoreboard? Let’s break it down, thusly.
RAVENS OFFENSE: This point is obvious to football observers, but scoring first is paramount. The team that gets the lead can dicate their playbook to the opponent. Fall behind, and because of the defenses, you might take more chances than usual. Baltimore is 7-1 when scoring first in 2009, 1-5 when the opposition does.
To those who don’t like the Ravens to throw as much as they have this year, you might want to avert your eyes. The Steelers secondary is vulnerable, and there will be opportunities for big plays. But Baltimore has to set it up. Run the ball with Ray Rice, Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee, and make Pittsburgh stack the line. Once that happens, then QB Joe Flacco can look for the receivers downfield, or just a mid-length pass to TE Todd Heap to move the chains.
Baltimore has run the ninth-most short pass plays (less than 15 yards) to the right with 171. The Ravens’ average gain on those passes, 6.8 yards, is second in the league. That’s where Rice and Heap live. Baltimore is also seventh in both plays (37) and average gain (13.8 yards) on passes 15 yards or more to deep left.
The big key here is to keep Flacco upright at all costs. Baltimore might get help if James Harrison misses the game with an biceps injury. A strong run game keeps the rushers at home and buys the Ravens’ QB needed time when he goes to the air. Pittsburgh has to protect its struggling secondary, and one way is to rush the passer consistently. Flacco needs to make the right decisions when the pocket collapses.
The Ravens have four games with 400-plus yards of total offense in 2009, including the three top outputs in club history.
RAVENS DEFENSE: The same problem on defense haunts the Ravens as well. Can the Ravens get after Roethlisberger enough to force turnovers and keep Santonio Holmes and Ward from getting open deep against the Ravens’ second-string corners?
Roethlisberger is hard to bring down, and harder still to corral when he gets out of the pocket. Baltimore needs to bring enough pressure from the edges to make Roethlisberger go through his receiver progression without benefit of rolling to the outside.
When the Steelers pass, they look deep middle, where they’ve tried 40 plays (second in the NFL) or deep right (35 plays; 10th in NFL). Pittsburgh has thrown just over 100 times more than they have run this season. Besides Ward and Holmes, TE Heath Miller has almost 700 yards and five TDs. Six players have 20 or more catches.
The run game is no slouch as Rashard Mendenhall needs 22 yards for 1,000 on the season. Mendenhall has six of the nine rush TDs for the Steelers. Willie Parker has settled into the backup role with almost 300 yards and no TDs.
The Steelers like to run to the right with 79 attempts each up the middle and to right guard, and 63 times to right tackle. Compare that to 31 plays each to left guard, left tackle, and 33 plays to left end.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A big question for the Ravens in the wake of losing Lardarius Webb for the season is: With Carr taking a bigger role in the secondary, will the Ravens let Carr return kickoffs and punts. Ed Reed (if he is able to go) will not return punts, so reports have Jalen Parmele returning kicks and Carr returning punts.
Not to be overstated, the turf at Heinz Field gets in bad shape in December with the amount of games played on it and the recent snowstorm. Field goals, especially from long distance, will be dicey. That will force both teams to make offensive decisions knowing that 3s will not be automatic at any point.
PREDICTION: The Steelers will try (like every other opponent) to take out Rice. Flacco will have to throw the ball effectively under pressure to find seams in the Pittsburgh secondary. Both teams’ key defensive performer (Reed and Polamalu) will not play in the game. This will be the usual knock-down, drag-out game as the defensive lines try to help their respective secondaries in coverage. Baltimore gets an early score and will spend the rest of the day holding off the Steelers’ desperate charge. I wouldn’t be suprised to see this game (like the first) go to overtime. Ravens 20, Steelers 17.