By Jeremy Hritz
There will be many motivating factors for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2012 season.
However, none is more rousing than beating the Baltimore Ravens.
The Steelers experienced polar opposite losses to their hated rival last year: a complete annihilation in the Charmed City and a last second heartbreaker in Pittsburgh. Both defeats set a precedent for the games that would follow, and they were indicators of the type of play that would characterize the entire 2011 season.
Following the first loss in the season opener, a surprisingly porous rushing defense and a shaky offense line was exposed, leading to less-than-stellar wins against Seattle and Indianapolis, and then a defeat at the hands of Houston who outplayed the Steelers in every way. It was not until the following week that the Steelers crushed Tennessee that they established some momentum that resulted in a four game winning streak, culminating with the season-masterpiece win against New England.
It appeared that the Steelers had righted the ship, and that they would regain their championship swagger from a season ago when they took down Tom Brady and company, until again, the Ravens landed in Pittsburgh and stole a victory in the final seconds. After this stinging loss, the season was a mixed bag that ended in a devastating playoff loss against Denver.
Since the transition to the AFC North from the AFC Central in 2002, the Steelers have captured the division crown five times, asserting themselves as the yearly favorite. Nonetheless, last year, the Ravens shook their confidence.
And now, heading into the 2012 season, if the Steelers have plans of winning another Super Bowl, they have to show that there are no lingering psychological effects of last year’s twin tattooing.
Rarely do either the Steelers or Ravens beat each other in blowout fashion, as the contests normally end on a last second field goal, and no question that the 35-7 loss in the opener raised some doubt in the players in the black and gold uniforms. And then again, to lose a game that they believed their defense had secured only added to their shaken confidence.
The impact that these losses had on the Steelers in 2011 reveals itself in the games that followed as they never seemed to establish a true team rhythm. More than any other game that the Steelers play every year, the matchups with the Ravens are always the most important, but this coming year, they have an even greater significance.
The Steelers must prove that 2011 was a fluke, and that the so-called Ravens stronghold on the division is nothing more than an anomaly. They cannot afford to be swept again by the Ravens, and must, at the least, split the series. If they lose both games, it is safe to assume that the season is over, as the Steelers missed the playoffs when they were swept in 2006 and lost to Denver in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last year. It is a common belief that the winner of the Steelers vs. Ravens matchups indicate who the most physical team in the NFL is, and the Steelers need that edge to have the buoyancy to advance deeply in the playoffs.
2012 presents an opportunity for a role reversal.
Last year, the media clamored about the gray hair of the Steelers defense. However, stars like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis have dodged the dreaded age curse for too long, and it is may be time for it to catch up. Couple that with a few low-key departures (Tom Zbikowski, Jarrett Johnson, Haruki Nakamura), the exit of defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, and the Achilles injury to Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, and it is not a reach to say that the Ravens will take a step back this year on defense. On the other hand, the Steelers have made some key changes to their defense to infuse some youth to the lineup which should result in improved play in 2012.
As I noted in an earlier article this year, I believe that the Steelers will sweep the Ravens this season. The only team to win consecutive AFC North Championships since 2002 is the Steelers, and even more interesting is that following every year that the Ravens have won the North, the Steelers have won the division the following year.
Regardless, in order for the Steelers to position themselves for another run this season, they must prove that last year’s series was a stroke of luck for the Ravens. The Steelers have not yet forgotten those losses and will not any time soon.
Sunday Night, November 18th will go a long way in letting us know just how good their memory is, and in turn, how good their season will be.