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Ravens-Steelers pregame stretch

November 16, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Baltimore Ravens (7-2) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)

Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC

Weather – or not?: Partly cloudy, 40. There will be no excuse this time for Steelers fans to leave early after the disgraceful showing Monday night where half the seats were empty before the issue was decided. Now, let’s hope there’s a reason for fans to stay in their seats this week.

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Announcers: Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth

Annoyance factor: Having seen the #1 crews from the NFL Network, CBS, Fox and ESPN in recent weeks, Steelers fans are in a pretty good position to judge the best broadcast crew going, which we think to be this one. Yes, Collinsworth’s voice is annoying, but he’s the most consistently insightful and accessible analyst working right now.

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Referee: Walt Anderson

Competence factor: Like The Bobs in “Office Space,” it gets kind of hard to keep track of The Walts in stripes in the NFL. This is Walt Anderson, the dentist from Texas, not Walt Coleman, the dairy farmer from Arkansas. Walt Anderson, our Walt this week, has worked two Super Bowls as a white hat (including the last one the Steelers played in), which looks good on any referee’s resume. Anderson’s crew has a reputation for calling things tightly, so we might see considerable yellow Sunday night with all the clawing, grabbing, spitting and swearing likely to be going down on the field.

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The line: Ravens -3.5

Smarts say: This game opened as a pick ‘em in some places when Ben Roethlisberger’s status was still uncertain and jumped here when the QB was ruled out. Interestingly, the over/under dropped from 45 to 40 at the same time. That means something in the range of 21-17 Ravens. We’re guessing the Steelers would have been favored by 3.5 if there were no questions about Big Ben’s health.

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+ This likely will be its own category in the blog for a few weeks, as you might imagine. + Let’s start with all the onion-like layers of the Ben Roethlisberger injury. First of all, there’s the personal layer. This is a young man, recently married and expecting his first child, a guy with a lot to live for. Certainly, making sure he’s there for his family is the driving force in his personal decision on when he feels comfortable stepping on the football field again. That said, $10 million a year makes it a lot easier to be there for your family and we’ll eventually see Roethlisberger on the field again. If he misses the rest of the regular season, we think the Steelers will be OK, and we know we’re in the minority there. The NFL is built on parity. At least half of the teams in the league will go 3-4 or 4-3 in their last seven games and we’d put the Steelers, even without Roethlisberger, in that Top 15 talent wise. A 4-3 finish would almost certainly get Pittsburgh in the postseason and 3-4 might, as well, as there’s a two-game gap right now between the No. 6 seed in the AFC and the next nearest team. So, assuming they make it, the playoff layer becomes a whole different ballgame without Roethlisberger. While we think Pittsburgh could win ANY single game without him, it’s almost unfathomable that they could win four CONSECUTIVE games under the same circumstances. There’s virtually no chance the Steelers can win a Super Bowl without their starting quarterback (and that’s true for just about every other NFL team, as well.) The final layer is Big Ben’s long-term career in Pittsburgh. This is a guy who likely has four, six or even eight good years left in him. It would be terribly short sighted to risk that for a single game this year.

+ We know Roethlisberger’s injury is going to fuel hundreds, if not thousands, of “exclusive reports” and “late-breaking details” in upcoming weeks and we’re not sure you should pay attention to any of them. We’re going to have a player, his agent, his teammates, a coach, an organization and various doctors providing (or leaking) information, sometimes conflicting information, to dozens of competing media outlets and that’s a recipe for a load of bull. We’ll take all of them with a grain of sale and believe Ben will be back when we see him under center again.

Key matchup: Steelers defense vs. Ray Rice

Because: We think Ray Rice is the best running back in football and we can’t remember a time the Steelers have really have stopped him. But we do remember several times that Rice has been stopped by a force more powerful than the Steelers defense: Ravens Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron. The knock on Cameron in Baltimore is that he too often forgets his running game and we know it’s true because we’ve seen him do it at least twice against the Steelers, abandoning Rice with 10-12 touches for a game. So before we even worry about whether the Steelers D can stop Rice, let’s pay attention to whether he’s getting the ball enough. Rice should have about 6-7 touches in the first quarter and 14-15 by halftime. That would lead to 20-21 after three quarters and 25+ for the game. If that happens and the Steelers don’t play better run defense than they did Monday (and obviously those two are connected), we’re guessing Rice’s line would be something like 19 rushes for 110 yards and 6 catches for 50 yards. Assuming Rice does get the ball, stopping him might require the Steelers to play more of that 4-2-5 alignment they’ve started using over the past year where Ziggy Hood and Casey Hampton play as inside tackles with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison playing as stand-up defensive ends. Stopping Rice almost certainly will require the presence of Ryan Clark, he of the multiple recent concussions. If Clark isn’t cleared to go, the Steelers might be dead in the water defensively with Ryan Mundy filling in. Mundy is a physical player, but he’s too prone to biting on fakes in the running game and he’s a huge coverage liability in the red zone.

Quick hits:

+ Before you throw in the towel on Byron Leftwich and the Steelers offense Sunday, remember this: They are going up against a below average NFL defense. Do NOT let the purple fool you, this is not a typical Ravens defense. They are 26th against the pass, 26th against the rush and 12th in scoring defense. Will they play better than that against the Steelers? Quite possibly, but the holes are there to exploit.

+ With each passing game this year where he makes little contribution, it’s becoming more and more likely James Harrison won’t be a Steeler next year, when he’s due a $10 million salary. Harrison still cannot drive off his knee to get the kind of leverage that made him one of the most feared rushers in the game and without that leverage he’s virtually useless blitzing. Of course, the absence of that threat from Harrison has also decreased LaMarr Woodley’s effectiveness. Nearly all of the Steelers sacks this year have come from pressure up the middle, often on the Double A Gap Blitz, where the two middle linebackers loop around opposite sides of the center. Pittsburgh is 22nd in the NFL with 16 sacks through nine games.

+ It looks like Rashard Mendenhall is returning at running back for the Steelers, which is fine with us, if he’s healthy. The real intrigue comes when we discuss which running back will be inactive. If history holds, it will be Jon Dwyer, because he doesn’t plan special teams while Baron Batch does.

The pick: Here’s the wild card in this game: What is Joe Flacco going to do against a Pittsburgh defense that is not pressuring him every down with exotic blitzes, but playing more nickel and dime than he’s seen before? Flacco has had some of his best moments as a pro against the Steelers and some of his worst. We really think the quarterbacking matchup here is more about him than Byron Leftwich. And really, this is a whole new ballgame all around, with the Ravens getting their first look at a Todd Haley offense in Pittsburgh and the Steelers facing a Baltimore D without Ray Lewis. We expect the theory of equilibrium to be in full effect Sunday for the Steelers, with other players playing better in the absence of what Ben Roethlisberger brings and, if Ryan Clark plays, we think Pittsburgh just might win … Steelers 23-21. (Blogger’s note: That’s our official pick, but if Mundy plays in place of Clark, we’ll take the Ravens 31-21.)

Last week: We ran our record against the spread to 6-3 by taking the Chiefs and the points last Monday.

This week: We’ll be attending Sunday’s game, stuffing our face in a cushy private box and probably not paying close enough attention and definitely not having as good a view as we would in front of our TV. We’ll tweet during the game, but a game blog is unlikely until sometime Monday.

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