Here we go with week 1 of the 2011 season and what a way to begin it. There is never a great time to play the Baltimore Ravens, but if there were, it would be week 1 with all of the changes that the Ravens have made coming out of a lockout that resulted in missed mini-camps and OTA sessions. The Steelers only have 7 new players on the roster with 6 of them being rookies. After a slow start in week 1 of the preseason against the Redskins, the Steelers really came together quickly on both sides of the ball and look very prepared to start the season with a bang. As I do every week of the season, here are my 7 things to watch for this Sunday against the Ratbirds and my score prediction.
Coming For The Corners? - The Ravens will start Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith on the corners in this game and combined they have just one NFL start between them. Williams is a former seventh-round pick of the Titans in 2008 and made only one start for the Ravens in 2009. Smith was drafted in the first-round by the Ravens back in April and had an up and down preseason. He will be a future talent I think, but is he ready now? The Steelers are loaded at the receiver position with Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Wallace, Sanders and Brown are all able to stretch the field vertically and I expect the Steelers to go right after Williams and Smith from the get-go. The Ravens will likely try to provide as much as help as they can over the top with free safety Ed Reed, but that will not be enough help should the Steelers offensive line give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enough time to find the open man. Look for the Steelers to throw at these corners early and all day.
Ravens Towing The Un-cohesive Line - The Ravens have an offensive line that will start on Sunday that has yet to take a snap as a complete unit together this past preseason. The offensive line consist of left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Ben Grubbs, center Matt Birk, right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher. Oher is flipping over from left tackle after McKinnie was picked up after being dropped by the Vikings. McKinnie was released for being over-weight and out of shape, but reportedly has dropped a lot of the weight since being signed. Word is he is still slow though and lethargic. Birk will start despite being hampered by his knee and Grubbs was added to the Friday injury report with a thigh problem. The Steelers will definitely be primed to test how cohesive a unit they have become with several stunts, twist and blitzes. LaMarr Woodley or James Harrison could have a field day on the edges or at least force the Ravens to keep extra bodies in to protect on passing downs.
Locking Up Lee - It is unknown if Ike Taylor will follow new Ravens receiver Lee Evans around most of the day on Sunday, but that would be my choice. Taylor has had good success over the years against Evans and the last thing you want is him hitting a homerun on Sunday. Taylor will be seeing his first action since breaking his thumb against the Redskins in the first preseason game, but he has not missed many practices since suffering the injury. The Ravens do not have a lot of experience on their depth chart with Tandon Doss, Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams backing up Evans and veteran Anquan Boldin. Doss is likely the best route runner of the young receivers, but none of them have been overly impressive during the preseason.
A Nickel For The Ravens Thoughts - If the Steelers are able to throw with success on early downs to start the game, it could force young defensive tackle Terrence Cody off the field more on early downs as the game progresses in lieu of an extra defensive back. In addition the Ravens will likely play Tom Zbikowski more at safety opposite Reed and that look will be more in favor of the Steelers running game and Roethlisberger can check to that if need be. Should the Steelers be predictable on the early downs by running, it plays right into the hands of the Ravens defense in my opinion and Cody will likely require a few double teams leaving the linebackers free to stuff the run.
Fry Rice - I think the best case scenario for the Ravens is to establish the run early and I would not be surprised to see them try to run early to the left and right at Brett Keisel and Harrison. Vonta Leach is a very accomplished fullback and looks to be a great lead blocker for Ray Rice. Rice is also good out of the backfield and excellent at making plays when out in space and must be spied on to ensure this does not happen. The Steelers have allowed just one 100-yard rusher in their last 50 games, but that one player that cracked that mark was Rice. The Ravens newly put together line would surely like to run block more than pass block, so shutting down the run game early and getting up quick on the scoreboard will force them to go pass heavy and get them out of their game plan.
Mobile Line & Lefty Legursky? - The Steelers success running the football last year was to the right side and they need to improve this year running to the left. Last year Ramon Foster was ineffective pulling left and it did not get any better when Tony Hills got his shot to do it this preseason, as he could never clear the hole when pulling. Doug Legursky has won the starting right guard spot and is very effective staying low when on the move. It will be interesting to see if they try to get Legursky on the move to the left early in the game and establish that that they can run to either side. This line will be much more mobile than the line that started the season last year and I expect the Steelers to take advantage of that and get these guys out in space more.
+2 Tox Stat - The Steelers are 12-1 in the last 25 games against the Ravens when they have a Tox stat of plus two or better. This means more explosive plays of 20 yards or more and win the turnover battle. The Steelers offense is built to be explosive and the veteran defense must force a turnover or two along the way. Seems too easy to boil a game down to these two stats, but history shows it is indeed a telling stat not only in this series, but every NFL game.
Steelers Ravens Game Prediction - A close game in the fourth quarter is an advantage for the Ravens at home in my opinion. The Steelers need to put this game away early as we have seen these games change on one defensive play in the past late in games. The Steelers offense is loaded and that must not settle for three points every time they hit the red-zone. This team is built to score this year and score they must. All bets are off if it is a 7 point or less game late. In other words, blow them out and make a statement. A loss by either team is not a big deal, but a division win, is a division win. These games are normally close, but as long as the Steelers do not have multiple miscues, I see it as a nice win to start the season.
Final Score: Steelers 31 Ravens 17