Steelers’ Opponent Preview: The Baltimore Ravens

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (92) sacks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) during the second half of an NFL divisional football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Glory Days…AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

This week one doesn’t need any cute titles. Nor, hopefully, do I need to explain why this week would be significant. It’s Ravens week, and in these degenerate days football doesn’t get any more old school than Steelers-Ravens. Except perhaps Arizona-Seattle having to settle for a tie when neither team was able to earn more than six points.

And since it is Steelers-Ravens week, I don’t need to explain why the opponent preview is on Tuesday instead of later in the week. I’ll certainly cover the injury news late in the week if necessary, but as it happens both the Ravens and the Steelers are coming off their bye week, so injuries, other than severe ones, should be at a minimum.

But since I brought up injuries, the news appears to be guardedly good for the Steelers. Cameron Heyward practiced “fully” yesterday in one of the 14 padded practices allowed during the entire season. Ben Roethlisberger was on the field, handing off, throwing, at least gently, and jogging around a bit. Marcus Gilbert assured a questioner that he would be back. Because Ravens week isn’t significant just to fans.

But this particular Ravens-Steelers game has more hinging on it than pride—the winner of the game will lead the division. The actual standings as of now are 1. Steelers (4-3), 2. Bengals (3-4-1), 3. Ravens (3-4), and Browns (0-8.) And although the Steelers and Ravens would both be 4-4 should the Ravens win, the Ravens would be 2-0 in the division, as they beat the Browns in Week 2. And although the Bengals would be ahead of both the Steelers and the Ravens with a win, fortunately they can’t win anything at all this coming weekend, as they are on their bye week.

Obviously, should the Steelers beat the Ravens they would be very comfortably atop the division. But is this likely?

Frankly, despite the rather downward trajectory of the Ravens in the past few years, all bets appear to be off when games against the Steelers are in question. The Ravens have won the last three tilts against the Steelers, including last season when their overall record was 5-11. Of their last five games of the season, when numerous injuries to important players completely stymied them, their only win was against the Steelers. This, despite the fact that the Steelers really needed the win, and despite the fact that Ryan Mallett got off a plane, was fitted for a Ravens uni, and was pointed to the right area of the field.

The overall record between the clubs isn’t great either, at least if you’re a Steelers fan. Since the Mike Tomlin/John Harbaugh era the overall record is nine wins and 10 losses. If you only begin at the 2011 season it looks much worse—three wins, eight losses.

This admittedly spans the period when the Super Bowl core of players was possibly held together too long in the hopes of repeating for the Steelers, and at a point when the Ravens were really coming into their own. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem as it it should look this lopsided.

It is going to be a really interesting test, for both teams. Supposedly John Harbaugh had a closed-door two-and-a-half-hour team meeting with the players. Mike Tomlin put his guys in pads to start the week. And the division is on the line.

But it’s more than that. Quite honestly, it would have been entirely understandable had the undermanned and overwhelmed Ravens lost the Week 16 game last season. And even more to the point, it would have actually benefitted them. But it was Steelers-Ravens, and that’s about all you need to know.

As noted above, both teams are coming off their bye week and will probably be as healthy as they will be the entire rest of the season. The big question for the Steelers is of course whether Ben Roethlisberger is back. I’m glad I don’t have to make that call. On the Ravens’ side, the big name player who will almost certainly be out is Terrell Suggs, who sustained a torn biceps a few weeks ago. But you never know these days, and Suggs has returned from soft tissue injuries such as this a lot faster than a normal person would.

But while Suggs has been a great player in his prime, he doesn’t have the same importance to the Ravens as Ben Roethlisberger has to the Steelers.

Of course, the Ravens have also taken a hit to their offense this season. The TE position has been particularly hard-hit, with Nick Boyle suspended and both Benjamin Watson and Maxx Williams on IR. However, Dennis Pitta, despite reports that he might well never play again, is back. iSteve Smith has been out, but our old friend Mike Wallace has taken up a lot of the slack. The real problem with their offense, though, is that Joe Flacco hasn’t been himself for a couple of years now. Or else he has been himself—it was just the Super Bowl run that was the anomaly. But whatever the case, you know he’ll be at his best for this game.

And the Ravens are playing at M&T Bank Stadium, a place where they have played very well, at least until the past year. The Steelers will, unfortunately, also be playing at M&T Bank Stadium, and they have been poor on the road this season. Really poor. As in they haven’t won a single road game.

But let’s hope this changes on Sunday. I will be writing more about the matchup during the week, because not only is it Steelers-Ravens, but it feels unusually portentous this season. This feels like a hinge point of the season, where it could either really take off or really head downhill. And if it is going to take off, what better place to do so than to beat the Ravens at their house? If not, it will only sting the worse…

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