Here we go, folks. Biggest game of the year. If the Steelers win against the Ravens today, the Super Bowl will be within sight. Here are some of my observations from the first quarter of the first NFL playoff game this weekend. Check back for more throughout the game.
- Based on the Ravens' pregame let's-get-pumped-up ritual ("Giveitallwegotgiveitallwegotgiveitallwegot!"), I predict that the Ravens are going to give it all they've got.
- It seems like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have been great for the entire history of the league, doesn't it? Lewis' production this year (139 tackles), at the ripe age of 35, is simply ridiculous. Similarly, Reed led the league in interceptions (8) despite missing six games to injury. That's just silly.
- Way to go Shaun Suisham, for stopping Lardarius Webb on the opening kickoff. He doesn't have quite the leg that Jeff Reed had for Pittsburgh, but Suisham displayed fine tackling form and made a beeline for Webb when he was the last line of defense. By contrast, Reed never seemed to want to tackle opposing returners; kickoff coverage was a huge problem for the Steelers last season, and it seemed like Reed's reluctance to sacrifice his body was consistently a big part of that. (Sidenote: I can't believe Webb's name is Lardarius - ugh.)
- I was really impressed with the Steelers' pass protection during their first drive, a 10-play, 80-yard series that culminated in a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown plunge to give Pittsburgh an early lead. They ran max protect from the shotgun, with tight end Heath Miller and a running back in the backfield on 3rd-&-long, they formed a crisp pocket around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in less obvious passing situations, and Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata were merely rumors. It was wonderful to see the Steelers' patchwork offensive line execute so dominantly.
- In just one quarter of football, the Ravens have already run four screens: three to running backs and one to tight end Todd Heap. With a couple exceptions - Ray Rice's explosive 14-yard touchdown draw - these have been the only productive snaps for Joe Flacco and company, as they try to exploit Pittsburgh's aggressive tendencies on defense. We'll have to see what kind of adjustments Dick LeBeau makes throughout the game.
- Even in pee-wee football, the first thing you learn is play to the whistle. After holding on to the ball for about six eons and pump-faking twice, Roethlisberger sustained a hit from Suggs that jarred the ball loose during the throw. Ramon Foster had the opportunity to dive on the ball, just to be safe, but he assumed the play was over and stood there staring at it instead. Cory Redding, defensive lineman for Baltimore, made a savvy veteran move, scooping up the ball and scrambling into the end zone. If Pittsburgh ends up losing by seven or less, they will only have themselves to blame after completely gift-wrapping that for Baltimore. Absolutely sickening.
- After one quarter, the Ravens lead the way, 14-7 after scoring twice in 27 seconds. The Steelers and Ravens are just about even in total yards - 50 and 66, respectively. The two squads have already combined for a total of six penalties for 106 yards.