Saturday, September 10, 2011


Last year after the Ravens blew a late lead in Baltimore to hand the Steelers a 13-10 gift-wrapped win, some within earshot of the Steelers locker room claim that Head Coach Mike Tomlin praised his team for playing 60 minutes of football while adding, “because the Ravens don’t.”


Perhaps, but when it comes to the Ravens and Steelers you have to admit, the Ravens have failed to finish games when playing with a lead.

Whether it was Cam Cameron’s fault, Michael Oher’s, Matt Birk’s line call or that sluggish clock in Joe Flacco’s head, THAT play at THAT point in the game allowing THAT player to go unabated to the quarterback is flat out inexcusable.

The loss cost the Ravens a chance to win the AFC North and it forced them to hit the road during the post season, a rugged detour for any team with Super Bowl aspirations. And then there was that loss in the Divisional Round of the playoffs when the Ravens suffered a team-wide meltdown as they blew a 21-7 third quarter lead in Pittsburgh.

All of those demons, the talk of Ben Roethlisberger’s winning streak against the Ravens and the chatter about the team’s inability to beat the Steelers in big games –every single one of those demons were about to be exorcised. Yet the win slipped through the team’s collective hand like a Ray Rice fumble, a bad center-to-quarterback exchange, a would-be go ahead TD pass to Anquan Boldin and a drive extending connection to TJ Houshmandzadeh – gone, gone, gone and gone.

The Ravens have been forced to live with that playoff loss for 8 months. It has burned in their souls and maybe even provided an added stimulus to their offseason workouts. The media has pounded the team, particularly Flacco for not being able to win the big one against their archrivals – for not being able to get over that huge hump on the shores of the Monongahela River.

And it just sits there.

And it lingers and gnaws at Flacco.

Sure he plays it off like it doesn’t bother him but given the mountain of criticism and the wrath of fans who desperately want to beat their dreaded towel waving Yinzer neighbors to the northwest, you know that those losses are just camped in Flacco’s craw. So as important as this game is for the Steelers, it’s more important for the Ravens and their signal caller.

A loss at home to the Steelers sets the stage for an uphill fight for the divisional crown but even more daunting for the Ravens is the thought that those demons will only worsen and the fan base will grow even more restless. That monkey on their back will resemble King Kong with a loss on Sunday.

More than likely the game will be close. That’s just how these two clubs roll when they square off. These two evenly matched teams are very, very similar, the primary difference being that the Steelers possess an ability to make plays when they count the most and usually those plays finish games and ultimately drive a stake through the hearts of their opponents. These teams are also intimately familiar with each other.

At least they used to be.

There’s very little that either of these teams can do that will surprise the other. This will be the ninth meeting of the two clubs in the last 36 months. But that said the Ravens may actually have an edge in the area of familiarity given all the new faces.

The Steelers knew what they could and couldn’t do with Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau didn’t have to respect the Ravens speed on the outside because for the most part there was none. He could allow Troy Polamalu to roam, to play up inside the box or even at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens just didn’t have that quick strike ability and without it, LeBeau could choke the intermediate passing game and squat on Ray Rice and the running game. That has changed.

And with that change so too could there be changes in the way Cam Cameron attacks LeBeau’s unit. At least we can only hope so. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results could land you in the Fruit Loop Farm.

With familiarity, opponents can play instinctively. Without it, they need to slow down and react. Steelers’ cornerback Ike Taylor understood all of Mason’s idiosyncrasies. But how will he fair against Lee Evans, Torrey Smith or Tandon Doss? James Harrison had an idea what would work against Oher but what does he know about Bryant McKinney? James Farrior could read Le’Ron McClain but what can he expect from Vonta Leach? And Cryin’ Ryan Clark he should could mirror Todd Heap in the secondary but can he stay with the speedier Ed Dickson?

The uncertainties create pressure and the pressure slows a player down in order to think, process, assess and finally respond to an opponent’s movements. Tendencies are learned on the fly but the learning curve present opportunities to the guys on the other side of the ball.

This is where the Ravens have a decided edge but the edge is only as good as the level of execution and a full game’s worth of commitment to executing.

The Steelers have Mike Wallace and the Ravens will undoubtedly account for him.

But John Harbaugh & Co. might be better served by remembering another Mike Wallace.


Jerry B said...

The Ravens shoulda/coulda/woulda beaten the Steelers like a drum in the playoffs! But......turnovers and an inept DC, who just never understood the importance of a pass rush in the NFL, particularly in obvious passing situations, doomed them. That's changed this year with a new DC who will be more aggressive and who has more talent at his disposal. My concerns have been with Cameron, whose game planning, play calling, lethargic tempo, failure to "spread the field", which is currently the "flavor of the year in the pass happy NFL and reluctance to utilize the "shotgun" more often where Flacco is most comfortable, have translated into an offense totally predictable and out of sync! The changes are already noticeable on "D"; until they change on "O", it's liable to be more of the same......