I hope everyone had a safe and wonderful Christmas.
But it’s that time of year again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Baltimore Ravens, a team that has seemingly lost its way this season. The Ravens have struggled to a 4-10 record, often participating in games that are not in the same hemisphere as competitive. Their offense may be the most injured in football and have trotted out reserve players in starting roles far too often to field a truly competitive team this season. This, coupled with the defense facing its own rash of injuries and poor play, has forced this team once thought of as a potential Super Bowl team to one that is competing for the number one pick in the draft.
How the mighty have fallen.
On the flip side, the Pittsburgh Steelers have firmly planted themselves as one of the most dangerous teams in football. The offense, seemingly historically great, has put up 30 points in now six consecutive games under Ben Roethlisberger. The quarterback-wide receiver duo of Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have put themselves into the conversation of one of the greatest duo’s of all time, and have put the rest of the NFL on notice. Brown is appears to be unstoppable and has registered 116 catches and 1586 yards, without his franchise quarterback for a quarter of the season. His numbers had Roethlisberger started every game would be beyond belief. The record of receptions in a season held by Marvin Harrison (143), once thought to be unobtainable, could have been crushed as would the record for receiving yardage in a season. It is truly remarkable the season that Brown is having and it boggles the mind to think of what this duo will do in 2016.
But that’s for another time.
MATCH-UPS TO WATCH FOR
Receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton vs. Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Kyle Arrington
The Steelers and Ravens game is an absolute nightmare for John Harbaugh and Co. The secondary has the impossible job of shutting down the leagues best trio of receivers in Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. This trio of receivers made the Denver Broncos secondary, perhaps the best in football, surrender 380 passing yards. The current Ravens secondary consists of an injured Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Kyle Arrington. The former is infinitely more talented than the latter and was outplayed and, frankly, embarrassed when tasked with shutting down this trio.
Quite simply, the Ravens do not have a prayer of stopping the forthcoming aerial assault.
The Steelers are going to move the ball at will against a secondary that is over-matched and too injured to be truly competitive. I have written before about the yardage necessary for Brown to break the 2000 yard mark on the season (414). If given the opportunity this game, Brown may just exceed 200 yards receiving and put himself in the position to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving yardage record against the Cleveland Browns, but that’s looking ahead.
The previous match-up of these two teams was a close one, featuring an overtime period that never should have come to be in the first place (thanks, Josh Scobee). Quarterback Michael Vick was ultimately unsuccessful in getting Brown and the rest of the playmakers the ball and quarterback Joe Flacco did just enough to put his team into a position to win. The Ravens squeaked out their first win of the season in a game in which they were outplayed by a quarterback that is now third on the depth chart. This week, the Ravens take on Ben Roethlisberger. Things are going to be a wee bit different this time around.
Running back DeAngelo Williams has not been the dominant factor that he has earlier in the season, but this is no fault of his own. The offensive gameplan has been simple: Roethlisberger is going to air the ball out and force opposing offenses to play the sort of game the Steelers want them to play. There isn’t a quarterback in the NFL right now who can throw the ball with Roethlisberger. The yardage has been downright silly at times and the firepower this offense possesses is second-to-none in the league. Since returning from his injury and rounding into form, I do not know if a quarterback has been playing at a higher level in football. Quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks has been excellent, but that is a debate for another time.
Williams may indeed get more carries this game than he has in recent weeks, but I don’t expect it to be the fixture of the offfense. This game might get ugly quickly, particularly if the offense struggles running the ball and turns to the air game to put points on the board.
The offensive line has been very impressive all year long, shutting down some of the most dominant edge rushers in football. The play of right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been nothing short of eye-opening, but failed to receive a Pro Bowl nod. The entire voting process is flawed to its core and this is just another reason as to why. The interior of the line was once again dominant last week, giving time to Roethlisberger against one of the leagues deepest and most talented defensive lines. Guard David DeCastro was voted into his first long overdue Pro Bowl this season. He may not have started out as dominant as we had all hoped, but he has transformed into the player we all thought he was going to be. He, along with center Maurkice Pouncey, are going to be fixtures along this offensive line for a long time.
Bud Dupree and James Harrison vs. Ricky Wagner and Kelechi Osemele
At the time of writing this, it still remains unclear who is going to start at quarterback for the Ravens. All signs are currently pointing toward newly-signed quarterback Ryan Mallett, but this has yet to be confirmed. While important, it is difficult to highlight a match-up that has not yet been confirmed. If Mallett is indeed the starting quarterback this weekend, the Ravens’ gameplan is going to feature more downfield passes and deep balls than under Jimmy Clausen. Mallett’s rocket arm has been well documented and is poised to attack the weakness of the Steelers’ defense.
What we can focus on is instead the match-up along the edges which is integral in shutting down the Ravens’ offense. Outside linebackers James Harrison and Bud Dupree have been decent at applying pressure this season, combining for 9.5 sacks on the year. While we are seeing the blossoming career of Dupree, we are also witnessing the eventual end of a Steelers legend. This may be the last time Harrison plays against the Ravens. I could not think of a better send-off than taking Kelechi Osemele to task and ruining the Ravens’ dreams of derailing the Steelers’ playoff hopes.
Dupree has been raw in his pass rush ability this year which was something to be expected. This is a game in which his motor and burst to the outside should do him favors and allow him to continually win against a subpar tackle in Ricky Wagner. Wagner lacks the ability to contend with Dupree’s quick first step and burst off the edge. Dupree’s lack of pass rush arsenal and bend should not slow him down much this game.
The secondary may have had their worst half of the season against the Broncos, then may have followed it up with their best half of the season. I cannot recall a “Jekyll and Hyde” act so prevalent in a single game than the game against the Broncos. The defense, particularly the secondary, allowed the Broncos to start the game 8-of-8 on third-down conversions in the first half, then followed it up with a 1-for-9 third-down conversion rate in the second half. It is important to point out that maligned cornerback Antwon Blake played a grand total of 4 snaps in the second half. I am not saying the two are related, but I am also not saying they are not, either. The defense pitched a shutout in the second half and completely blanketed the Broncos receiving core as well as applied consistent pressure to quarterback Brock Osweiler. The front seven did not look good in the first half but showed up in a big way in the second. Speaking of Pro Bowl snubs, defensive end Cameron Heyward was his usual dominant self against an offensive line that was completely overwhelmed in the second half.
The fact Heyward was not voted into the Pro Bowl is a travesty, but I digress.
Brandon Boykin has played well when given the opportunity (funny, that) and is expected to take on more of a role against the Ravens. Cornerbacks William Gay and Ross Cockrell are also expected to be part of the rotation on Sunday, which hopefully means less playing time for Blake. The less Blake is on the field, the better the defense seems to be as a unit.
SCORE PREDICTION AND PARTING SHOTS
The Steelers are just too talented and playing too well right now for the Ravens to have a prayer. The offense explodes and Brown registers over 10 receptions and 200 receiving yards en route to the destruction of a divisional opponent.
Steelers 42 – Baltimore 17
• I once said it was unlikely that Roethlisberger hit the 4000 yard mark this season. He needs 631 yards to complete the feat, and will likely get a huge chunk of that on Sunday. Somehow, I underestimated Roethlisberger and this offense to get the job done. It’s the closest to a sure thing as I can give to you this season.
• The fact that Brown is even in the discussion of holding the record for the most receiving yardage in a single season after not having his franchise quarterback for four games is absolutely remarkable. I’ve said it a lot and am going to continue saying it a lot. It’s just … I do not know if a receiver in this generation has played this well over an extended period of time. Brown is going to hold quite a few single season receiving records in 2016.
• Pouncey may be coming soon, which really is not fair to the rest of the NFL. The offense is this great and it is down two All-Pro players, both of whom are integral to the success of the unit.
• Have I mentioned that Antonio Brown is a very, very good receiver?