This week's impending matchup against the Baltimore Ravens is one numerous Steelers fans - myself included - have had circled in their calendars for quite some time. A few weeks ago, games against trendy teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans seemed winnable but tough, while the Week 4 matchup against division rival Baltimore - a squad that received more offseason love than any team this side of Lambeau Field - seemed an impossible task.
After all, the Steelers injuries were growing by the day and their star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was suspended for a month due to his second consecutive offseason with rape allegations.
The Steelers were all but written off.
Cut to now. The Steelers have produced three dominant performances on defense, while the Ravens have looked lackluster in their two wins; a Roethlisberger-less victory over Baltimore doesn't seem so crazy after all. Here are five reasons the Black & Gold can pull it off and head into the bye week with their undefeated record intact.
1. Ray Rice's Boo-Boo. Baltimore's Ray Rice, one of the league's most exciting and talented young running backs, was forced out of action late this Sunday with a knee bruise. While his status for Week 4 is still up in the air, the Baltimore Sun is already speculating that Rice could sit out for one week. It seems that the worst-case scenario for Pittsburgh is that Rice will be a bit hobbled against the Steelers.
Either way, it's obviously splendid news for the Steelers defense. In two contests last year, Rice was highly effective against the Black & Gold, averaging 155 yards from scrimmage and 5.6 yards per touch. If Rice can't go, the Ravens will turn to Willis McGahee, their multimillion-dollar backup. McGahee is a bruiser (at 235 pounds) who's never really been very dynamic (4.0 career yards per carry). Moreover, he's prone to coughing up the football, fumbling once per 81 career carries, making him all the more susceptible to an aggressive Pittsburgh defensive front.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of facing a Rice-less Ravens offense would be not having to worry about the shifty runner in the screen game (6 catches for 81 receptions in two games last year), leaving Pittsburgh's pass rush free to tee off on quarterback Joe Flacco.
Speaking of which...
2. The Steelers' pass rush can and will rattle Joe Flacco. Flacco has not had a good start this year. (Sorry, fantasy owners!) In three contests thus far, he has turned the ball over six times and recorded a pedestrian 6.1 yards per attempt. Granted, he found his stride in Week 3, but it was against the Browns. Exploiting a mismatch like Eric Wright vs. Anquan Boldin is really a pretty low bar for an NFL quarterback to clear.
Flacco's history against the Steelers has been perilous, to say the least. In two games against Pittsburgh last season, he was fairly efficient keeping the chains moving (7.6 yards per attempt, 60% complete), but he floundered in critical situations, as the Steelers pass rush sacked him nine times and forced three fumbles. (It would be unfair to mention how poorly Flacco fared against the Steelers the year before, his rookie season, and so I won't.)
Granted, that's a small sample size, but the argument becomes more compelling when you consider that Pittsburgh was able to frustrate Flacco last year without
All-World safety shampoo enthusiast Troy Polamalu. With Polamalu, who's been excellent this year (even when he's on the sidelines), Flacco should struggle.
3. Ike Taylor (with safety help) can shut down Anquan Boldin. Taylor has long been one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league, mostly because he simply cannot catch, and thus ends up on the cutting room floor when it comes time to make the highlight reel. (He dropped another potential pick against the Buccaneers, as per his usual.) Taylor matches up well against Boldin; the two have similar speed and builds, although the latter has a slight weight advantage.
Taylor is a sound tackler and can minimize Boldin's yards after the catch, an area where the receiver has typically excelled. Of course, Taylor has the luxury of relying on two great safeties (Polamalu and Ryan Clark) if the play gets behind him. Flacco has exhibited a tendency to lock onto Boldin this year - in much the same way he focused on Derrick Mason, now fossilizing, during his first two seasons. So if Boldin functions as Flacco's hot read for most of the afternoon, running slants, outs, and the like, we may just see Polamalu jump another route.
4. If Peyton Hillis can do this against Baltimore, why can't Rashard Mendenhall run wild? But before I talk about Mendenhall, you must click that link. Seriously. I'll even include it again, right here. It's cool, I'll wait. Hillis, who was absolutely brilliant this past Sunday, exploded through a giant hole in the Ravens' defensive front and casually steamrolled safety Dawan Landry for another eight yards, just for good measure. The former Denver Bronco, who the Browns shrewdly acquired this offseason, absolutely punished the Ravens' defense in Week 3, carrying 22 times for 144 yards and a score, along with seven receptions for 36 yards.
The only explanation is that Ray Lewis was too busy talking to animals to tackle Hillis. Or maybe - just maybe - there's a chink in the armor of the Ravens defensive front that the Steelers can exploit. Count on Mike Tomlin and company taking a long, hard look at the tape from the Browns game.
In any case, Terrell Suggs had never heard of Hillis before Sunday's rushing clinic, so think of what a runner with Mendenhall's pedigree could do. The former first-round selection has been stellar through the first three games of the season, contests in which opposing defenses knew Pittsburgh would
play Hide-the-Quarterback lean on the running game, frequently cramming eight defenders into the box. Nonetheless, Mendenhall has rushed for over 110 yards per game at an impressive clip of 5.2 yards per.
Granted, there's no guarantee Mendenhall will go crazy like Hillis did - and that kind of mindless application of the transitive property often constitutes the laziest football analysis out there - but I really like his chances to be productive enough to help the Steelers toward their fourth consecutive win.
5. Baltimore's pass defense is suspect at best. So far, the Ravens have faced Mark Sanchez (who, at the time, was apparently coached not to throw the ball more than six yards down the field), Carson Palmer, and Seneca Wallace (backup for this guy) - not exactly Elway, Montana, and Marino. So their first-ranked pass defense (116.7 yards per game) is really quite deceptive.
Baltimore's offseason, despite the Super Bowl hype, was marred by injuries all over their secondary, most notably to safety Ed Reed, who (when healthy) is a better player than Polamalu...according to Polamalu, anyway. Without Reed back in the deep zone and with the Ravens fielding two very ordinary cornerbacks (Fabian Washington and Chris Carr), there's no reason Charlie Batch and Mike Wallace can't connect for another long one or two this coming weekend. Hopefully this time it's a prettier ball. Ugh.
BONUS: Home field advantage. Yes, seriously. Typically, analysts vastly overstate the importance of home-field advantage. My rationale is that - with a few special exceptions - most professional athletes rarely feel the pressure we like to ascribe to them from the comfort of our couches or our broadcast booths. Sure, it enhances the game's narrative if we pretend to know about the alleged butterflies in their stomachs, but these are guys who have been in the limelight all of their lives, guys who prepare day-in, day-out.
That said, crowd noise can be a factor in football, and if it isn't this Sunday, for divisional action at Heinz Field - where a rabid Steelers fanbase will be screaming itself hoarse - then I don't know when it will be. If the crowd can rattle the Baltimore offensive line (who should already be antsy about Pittsburgh's dominant pass rush) into committing a penalty or two, that could go a long way in determining the winner of what I expect to be an ugly, scrappy win.
Silly, Bold Prediction: Pittsburgh 16, Baltimore 13.