PREGAME STRETCH: Steelers at Ravens

Rookie starters hold the key to AFCN grudge match

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at Baltimore Ravens (3-4) at M&T Bank Stadium, capacity 71,008; Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS.

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Rich Gannon. Annoyance factor: Unknown. Hmmmmmm, Eagle had been working exclusively with Dan Fouts as CBS’ No. 2 team until the last few weeks when he and Gannon started rotating between Eagle and Kevin Harlan. We can’t find any indication Fouts is ill or that there was any kind of shakeup. Weird. Anyway, Eagle is great, Gannon not so much. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Sunny, mid 60’s. Nothing to see here, move along.. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank

Baltimore offense: 18th passing, 26th rushing, 26th ppg

Pittsburgh defense: 26th passing, 16th rushing, 12th ppg

Pittsburgh offense: 8th passing, 18th rushing, 12th ppg

Baltimore defense: 6th passing, 4th rushing, 8th ppg

Sacks: Baltimore 16th (16); Pittsburgh 32nd (8)

Sacks allowed: Baltimore 11th (15), Pittsburgh 2nd (11)

Comment: The Ravens certainly look like the better team on paper but keep in mind the teams they’ve beaten are a combined 6-17 and the teams they’ve lost to are 17-13. Also, it’s still jarring to see those sack numbers for the Steelers. Wow.

Referee: John Hussey. Competence factor: Hussey in his second year as a white hat and the last (and only) time he worked a Steelers game in that capacity, he looked right at the Rams’ Mark Barron illegally hitting and injuring Ben Roethlisberger in St. Louis and did not throw a flag. Good times. The crew average 15 flags for 130 yards per game, both above the league’s already intolerably high averages.  Information courtesy www.footballzebras.co and www.profootballreference.com.

The line: No (real) line. Smarts say: There were a couple BAL -2.5 lines early in the week that probably indicated an expectation Ben Roethlisberger would not play, but there were pulled as soon as he started practicing. We found at least one PIT -1 line on Friday, indicating an expectation Roethlisberger would play, but none of the large sites were taking bets on this one. When and if a line posts on this one, the over/under will be low, likely in the 43 ranges. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

The last time: The Steelers lead the all-time series, 24-20, but have lost the last three games to their nemesis, the last two in embarrassing fashion, the last one to Ryan Freakin’ Mallett, who they allowed to throw for a career high 274 yards. That 20-17 loss in Bawlmer last December SHOULD have kept the Steelers out of the playoffs and lit a fire of controversy under Mike Tomlin, but Rex Ryan and the Bills bailed Tomlin out in Week 17 and now we barely even remember getting swept by the Ravens.

Key matchup: Steelers Jarvis Jones and James Harrison  vs. Ravens LT Alex Lewis or Ronnie Stanley. Because: The Ravens left tackle for the past month has been a rookie from Nebraska. There’s a chance another rookie, highly touted Ronnie Stanley, will return against the Steelers, but either way, the Ravens’ starter will either be playing his fifth or third NFL game. There were games in this series’ not-too-recent past when you would not have dreamed about putting a rookie out there. The Steelers ROLB are veterans. In base situations where they are the fourth rusher, Jones and Harrison must win the matchup with the rookie (and whatever help he’s offered) and pressure Joe Flacco. If Pittsburgh can pressure Flacco with four, they’ll win the game, not matter who their own quarterback is.

Long snap:

You might have heard the NFL’s TV ratings have been poor this year. It’s been in all the papers. And, of course, it’s spawned a thousand think pieces about why that’s the case, most of them wildly off base.

Before we discuss why the league’s popularity with TV viewers is down, let’s look at why it went up in the first place: Violence, alcohol and gambling. The NFL is facing challenges on all three of those fronts.

Human beings love watching other human beings fight, always have, always will. But in 2016, running a business that is based on human beings fighting comes with some pretty serious legal pitfalls. Hence, the NFL’s effort to legislate high-level violence out of the game. It’s understandable in terms the daunting legal future the league faces, but ludicrous in terms of maintaining the sport’s popularity. On the alcohol front, fewer people in stadiums means fewer people buying $12 beers. Fewer people watching games means fewer people watching elaborate commercials about $12 beers. In terms of gambling, we’re not really talking about Vegas/Atlantic City type stuff, but rather dollars dropped into pots of fantasy football leagues. Fantasy football has been largely overlooked by national media in terms of the NFL’s skyrocketing popularity since 2004 and as fantasy becomes less popular (or, at least, more mundane), it’s also part of the NFL’s viewership problem.

Now, onto some of the other reasons, foremost the decline of network TV as whole. Technology continues to obliterate the concept of mass audiences with targeted programming delivered directly to viewers outside the “normal” channels. This is where a HUGE chunk of the NFL’s causal audience is going.

Also, emerging sports alternatives, most notably soccer and video games are taking another chunk of audience.

Now, at the bottom of our list are the items most pundits have at the top of theirs: Poor games, lack of star power and the recent series of high-profile controversies. We think these combine to maybe comprise 10 percent of the league’s viewership decline, rather than the 90 percent the hair-trigger, short sighted national media perceives.

The NFL is constructed to achieve parity. It appears right now that parity standard is lowering to 7-9 rather than 9-7, resulting in some truly terrible games between truly terrible teams. Is it a one-year aberration? We’ll find out.

Said parity and injuries are having a secondary effect. This is a league that is perceived as having not nearly as many stars as in the past. Peyton Manning’s retirement also helped fuel our perceptions on this.

With fewer stars, the dreadfully intrusive officiating — something that’s gotten much, much worse under Dean Blandino’s oversight — is much more noticeable.

Finally, while the controversy du jour might feed web clicks it does not have that kind of immediate impact on the NFL’s ratings. People are creatures of habit and just do not largely stop watching football because one thing ticked them off, be it Colin Kapernick, Ray Rice, Roger Goodell or the obscenely bad officiating.

Nope, what’s ailing football is a series of social and technological changes larger than any National Anthem protest and not nearly as likely to go away any time soon as Mr. Kapernick.

Quick hits:

+ How much time this week was wasted on sports talk radio and TV discussing whether Ben Roethlisberger should play this weekend against the hated Ravens? Answer: All of it. If #7 is cleared medically by team doctors, he should play. If he is not, he should not. No discussion needed.

+ We got a chuckle earlier this week out of a breathless ESPN alert that Mike Tomlin had “hinted” Roethlisberger would play this week. Mike Tomlin does not hint. He precisely chooses his words and makes sure they mean as close to absolutely nothing as they can. “We’ll let his participation in practice be our guide” is not a hint.

+ Ladarius Green is another name in the “Will He or Won’t He?” category. Normally, we’d think someone coming back after a one-year absence from the field wouldn’t be much of a factor, but tight ends are a little bit different animal because of their red zone value. If and when Green gets on the field, don’t rule Green out for a big catch right away. If it’s this week, Pittsburgh would have to activate Green from the PUP list by 4 p.m. Saturday.

The pick: We noted above the Steelers must exploit Ravens’ rookie LT Alex Lewis. Of course, the Ravens will be trying to exploit a rookie of their own, one Artie Burns, set to make his first NFL start and see more snaps because of a nagging injury for William Gay. Of course, the player most likely to exploit Burns is that fine wideout Mike Wallace. The Steelers, of course, have never regretted letting Wallace go, but that will likely change (for a little while) on Sunday…. Ravens 24-16.

Last week: We love being right, just not about the Patriots. That said, the double thumbs up from the Hoodie two weeks ago leaves us at 4-3 straight up and more than respectable 5-2 against the spread.

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