For the second consecutive year, the Ravens start off the season with one the previous season’s AFC Championship game participants. Last year, it was the New York Jets, who had fallen to the Colts for the right to play in Super Bowl XLIV. This year, it’s the Steelers coming to town, fresh off their Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers. Both these teams’ 2010 campaigns ended in the most excruciating fashions possible, with the Steelers coming up short on a final-minute 4th-and-5 in Indianapolis when a touchdown and extra point would have given them Lombardi Trophy number 7, and the Ravens once again failing to get over the hump of their hated rivals despite building a seemingly comfortable 21-7 halftime lead at Heinz Field in the AFC Divisional round.
The Ravens have undergone plenty of turnover on their roster since that playoff game. Gone are Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, Kelly Gregg, and others. New on the scene are Vonta Leach, Lee Evans, Ricky Williams, Jimmy Smith, Tandon Doss, Torrey Smith, Bernard Pollard, and Brandon McKinnie. Terrance Cody, Cary Williams, and Ed Dickson go from backups to starters. Michael Oher returns to his rookie-year position at right tackle, and Marshal Yanda moves back inside from right tackle to right guard. All told, the Ravens will have nine players either new to the lineup or in new positions compared to the last time they lined up against Pittsburgh in January.
The Steelers, on the other hand, stood nearly completely pat following their Super Bowl defeat. They return 21 of 22 starters, with the only “new” addition being right guard Doug Legursky. Legursky isn’t really new though, having started several games last year, including the Super Bowl, where he filled in for injured center Maurkice Pouncey.
So which team is at an advantage? The Ravens, who know exactly what they are getting from Pittsburgh, but aren’t nearly as certain what to expect from all their own new pieces? Or the Steelers, who are fully confident with their roster, but aren’t quite sure what to make of or expect from these new look Ravens? Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin came out this week and said that he was “uneasy” after the Ravens changes – don’t put too much stock in that, though. Mike Tomlin isn’t rattled; he was just blowing smoke.
The changes that the Ravens made were 100% necessary if they ever want to evolve as a team. They got younger, faster, and stronger. However, the timetable on which all of these new pieces will gel to be in a position to take the next step is far from certain. It seems highly doubtful that the offensive line, for instance, five guys who have never played a single snap together in their current formation, will be world beaters here in week 1, especially against such a formidable front seven as the one possessed by the Steelers. Or that a secondary with 75% new pieces will be able to adequately contain a strong Pittsburgh passing attack right off the bat.
IF the offensive line can open holes for Ray Rice and protect Joe Flacco
IF Dickson and Dennis Pitta can pick up Heap’s slack not only receiving, but blocking
IF Cary Williams can carry over his strong preseason performances to a time when the games really matter
IF Jimmy Smith can learn from his mistakes and match up with Hines Ward and/or Mike Wallace in his first ever real NFL action
IF Flacco and Evans can be effective in their debut, despite missing nearly a week of practice together as Evans sat out with an injured ankle
If all of those things come together, the Ravens should be able to not only beat the Steelers, but beat them handily. Which is to say, if these teams were once again meeting in week 4 or 5, things would be looking a lot more optimistic in Charm City. The Ravens, as currently constructed, are built to improve as the season goes on, not fire right out of the gates on all cylinders. A warm up game or two against Cincinnati or Seattle would sure be nice, but the NFL schedule makers granted the Ravens no such reprieve. Three straight AFC games right off the bat, one against 2010’s division/conference winner and another against the AFC runner up. Things get real immediately.
To expect all of those “If” coin flips to come up Ravens in the season opener is probably a bit much to ask.
While the way to beat Pittsburgh is to spread them out and throw the ball, John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron seem much more likely to retreat even further into their conservative shells this Sunday with all the question marks around the team, rather than to suddenly get super aggressive and risk a potential feast on Flacco by linebackers LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Lawrence Timmons. After all, their conservative approach beat the Steelers once last year, and very nearly beat them two additional times. Save for a single play in each of the final two match ups between these teams in 2010, the Ravens could have very realistically posted a three-game sweep.
Which isn’t to gloss over the Steelers’ wins. Hell, if Charlie Batch is able to pick up just one first down in the final two minutes in week 4, Pittsburgh sweeps the Ravens three games for the second time in three years.
The point is, the approach that Harbaugh and Cameron have been using over the past several years against their fierce division rivals hasn’t been nearly as futile as their 2-6 record would indicate; they’re close, time and time again. But, time and time again, someone wearing a logo on only one side of their helmet steps up in crunch time and wins the game. The law of averages would seem to dictate that, eventually, a Raven or two will step up when it matters – like Flacco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh did last year.
Which is why Ravens fans should expect the coaching staff to once again put together a game plan designed to limit mistakes and keep the game as close as possible as long as possible, with the hope that it will be Flacco, Rice, Suggs, or Reed that makes the decisive crunch-time play, and not Polamalu, Roethlisberger, Wallace, or Woodley.
That’s the hope.
There are, unfortunately, just too many “ifs” to feel too confident in that hope.
Steelers 20 Ravens 13
I just can’t bring myself to do it.
/puts on homer glasses
/chugs purple kool aid
Ravens 23 Steelers 17