#STEELERS Pregame Stretch: High emotions, deep passes

After an unexpectedly emotional win, can Pittsburgh withstand Flacco's deep-ball pressure

WEEK 9

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (4-2-1) VS. BALTIMORE RAVENS (4-4)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., M&T BANK STADIUM 71,400

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: COMPANY LINE / The Steelers veteran offensive line snapped the team out of an early funk against the Browns and paved the way for a dominating 33-18 win that strengthened Pittsburgh’s positon in the AFC North and sent Clevland reeling into an uncertain future.

This week’s announcers: Ian Eagle (again), Dan Fouts (again) and Evan Washburn (again). You have got to be kidding me! This is an exhausting fourth time we’ll hear this crew in the eighth Steelers game. Eagle has been fine on play by play and Fouts has been up and down. He had a pretty good game Sunday so this one is due to be a clunker. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Partly sunny, 59. Picture. Perfect. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Craig Wrolstad. This crew is averaging 15 accepted penalties and 137 penalty yards assessed (!!!!!!!) per game (!!!!!!!) against league average of 13 penalties and 114 yards. That’s insane and unacceptable. In the past three years, they’ve been at or below league averages so we’re assuming that means they’ve taken the new points of emphasis to heart. Expect to see a bunch of roughing the passer calls and plethora of defensive holding and hands to the face flags (just like we all like it, right?). Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: It seems like a million years ago when the first-place Ravens thumped the reeling Steelers, 26-14, holding them without a score in the second half of a home game, but it was actually just a month ago. Now, it’s Pittsburgh in first place and Baltimore who’s reeling.

The line: Baltimore -3/47.5. Smarts say: The most predictable things about each recent season are that Pittsburgh will be favored by 3 over Baltimore at Heinz Field and Baltimore will be favored by 3 over Pittsburgh and M&T Bank Stadium. This is the first sub-50 over/under for the Steelers in more than a month. Putting the line and o/u together and you get something like 25-22 Ravens. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 22nd rushing, 5th scoring (29.1 ppg), 2nd sacks allowed (10)

BAL defense, 2nd passing, 11th rushing, 1st scoring (17.1 ppg), 1st sacks (27)

When the Ravens have the ball:

BAL offense, 8th passing, 24th rushing, 23rd scoring (21.6 ppg), 10th sacks allowed (15)

PIT defense, 24th passing, 6th rushing, 16th scoring (24.6 ppg), 2nd sacks (24)

Giveaway/Takeaway: BAL -4 (23rd in league); PIT -3 (22nd in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): BAL .517; PIT .500

So…: It doesn’t take long to fine the immovable object and irresistible force in those numbers. The league’s #2 passing offense faces its #2 passing defense. Round 1 of that matchup went decisively to Baltimore, but with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown getting more in sync each week, Round 2 should be very intersting. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt

Why: The pair were stellar Sunday terrorizing Baker Mayfield, but at some point they have to start producing against upper echelon teams rather than piling up stats against the Browns.

Baltimore: Joe Flacco

Why: Flacco was terrible Sunday on the road against Carolina and that stung worse because Cam Newton was brilliant on the other side. The whispers for Lamar Jackson are growing into shouts in Charm City and if Flacco can’t deliver against the Steelers, Baltimore will be in full “bench him” mode.

Key matchups:

Ravens WR John Brown (and the officials) vs. Steelers CBs Joe Haden and Coty Sensabaugh. Why: The Ravens offense is predicated on hitting a few deep passes (or getting long pass interference call to open things up. Brown burned Haden, Artie Burns and the Steelers for 100+ yards in the first meeting. Attempts to do so again will start early on Sunday.

Quick hits:

+ What a job last week by Pittsburgh’s offensive line, snapping the team out of an early funk and literally propelling James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger to big games that grabbed all the headlines, of course. After allowing an early sack when he was inadvertently tripped, Alejandro Villanueva absolutely stoned Myles Garrett and it appears Mike Munchak has developed another “plug and play” backup in Matt Feiler, who was absolutely unnoticed at right tackle. We’ve said it before and it’s even more evident now: Munchak is the most valuable Steelers assistant and it isn’t close. His name already has been linked to the Cleveland job (although we’d guess he’s too smart to get involved with Jimmy Haslam) and will be linked to many others this offseason. We don’t suppose Mike Tomlin is going anywhere for at least the next five years so it seems inevitable that Pittsburgh will eventually lose Munchak. We can’t imagine Pittsburgh will have a similarly talented offensive line and quarterback combo again for a while so the pressure really is on two win a championship this year or next.

+ The Ravens defense made Ben Roethlisberger and the entire Steelers offense look inept in the second half of the two teams’ first meeting and, although he’s piled up some gaudy stats since, Roethlisberger has not yet looked like a guy who can strike fear into opposing defensive coordinators. Now would be the time for that guy to show up because Pittsburgh is no postseason threat unless they’ve got an accurate, playmaking veteran QB.

+ And while we’re adding to our list of worries: James Conner is averaging 22 touches per game and on pace for 360 touches for the season. That is a heavy, heavy workload in the NFL and it increases the chance Conner will a) break down this year, and/or b) be affected in the long term. That may sound alarmist, but remember how quickly Larry Johnson burned out in Kansas City getting 350 and eventually 400 touches in a season. So…. Enter Le’Veon Bell, right? Well, certainly it would be great it Bell was able to split the load with Conner and give Pittsburgh a fresh set of legs down the stretch of the season. Of course, there’s a whole load of other baggage that comes along with a Bell return. Mike Tomlin is going to get a chance to earn his money if the scenario plays out.

The pick: The Steelers ended up playing an unexpectedly high-emotion game last Sunday, not because of the opponent, but because of the circumstances in Pittsburgh surrounding the Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre. The tragic events of last Saturday certainly put football into perspective for many, but it did highlight how emotion and sports go hand in hand. That said, our sports concern this week is that it’s very difficult to play another emotional game at a high level a week later. We’re expecting a flat Steelers team Sunday … Baltimore 27-17.

Last week: OK, so if you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re picking against the Steelers every week and we’re going to do it forever. It’s our new schtick. We are now 2-4-1 straight up and 2-5 against the spread.

Blogger’s note: We’ll be on vacation next week at a remote, undisclosed location. Assuming our Internet works there, we’ll do a mini preview of next Thursday’s game with Carolina via the Twitter machine. Follow along at @15MinutesBlog.

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