By Jeremy Hritz
The Steelers beat the Browns. Handily. Convincingly.
Enough to make even the most cynical of fans after the 0-4 opening start believing again. In fact, you could argue that the performance put on display this past Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns was their most impressive victory in the last two seasons.
While the running game was not dominant, it served its purpose and accumulated the yardage necessary to grind the clock. Ben Roethlisberger played an efficient and mistake free version of football, including a 41-yard scoring toss to Antonio Brown in the end zone on esteemed cornerback Joe Haden. The offensive line kept Big Ben off of his back and gave him sufficient time to find open receivers, and the result was a quick passing game that the Browns had no answers for.
On defense, the pressure came from all levels: the d-line, linebackers, and secondary. Cameron Heyward continued to flourish, Jason Worilds made fans question the necessity of LaMarr Woodley, and William Gay and Troy Polamalu were playmaking machines.
For a while there, during the five sacks, four turnovers, and big plays on offense, the Steelers gave off the confidence of a team that was to be reckoned with, and with five games to play, meaningful games against divisional opponents, the conclusion of the 2013 Steelers story has yet to be written.
And if the performance against Cleveland was a preview of what is to come, it is difficult to not be excited.
Tonight, in what has become the most meaningful game (thus far) for Pittsburgh in 2013, the Steelers will have to play an outstanding brand of football in order to overcome the very real home field advantage boasted by the Ravens which will assuredly be intensified by the late start, the Thanksgiving holiday, and inebriated Ravens fans.
In addition to battling the Baltimore fans, the Steelers must show that they are capable of stopping big passes and of getting better production out of their running game.
Joe Flacco hasn’t had a stellar follow-up to his Super Bowl MVP performance, and he has thrown a career high 14 interceptions, although only three of those have been thrown in Baltimore where the Ravens own a 4-1 record. Translation? The Steelers are going to have to apply pressure to force Flacco into mistakes, and they will need strong outings from Jarvis Jones and the steadily-heating Jason Worilds. If Flacco is afforded too much time to throw against the Steelers, he has the weapons to stretch the field in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, Smith who has hauled in six catches of 40+ yards and Jones who last weekend against the Jets caught a 66-yard bomb for a touchdown. The Steelers must protect against the big play if they are to win this game, and it starts with pressure and ends with fundamentally sound tackling.
Sure, the Steelers have not set records this year with their running game, but recently, it has been effective when needed. In the first contest against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell had a career high 93 yards on 19 carries, some of which came out of the Wild Cat formation. While he didn’t tag a run longer than 11 yards, he was able to chunk yardage and extend drives. This past weekend against the Browns, the Steeler struggled to get the short yardage needed to convert for first downs, especially late in the game with Jonathan Dwyer, and none of the backs were able to break off an explosive run. In fact, in this 2013 NFL season, Pittsburgh is one of only eight teams to not have a 40+ yard run, and as far as 20+ yard runs go, they only have four. Earlier in the year, there was much discussion about the absence of turnovers and sacks on defense, and that seems to have been remedied. Could it be that the explosive run is the next task this team will cross off of its list? Without question, an efficient running attack tonight will deflate a raucous home crowd.
These two areas, the deep passing game of the Ravens and the ability of the Steelers to run the football, will be strong indicators of what the outcome of this contest will be.
Ultimately, there isn’t much new that can be said about the Steelers vs. Ravens rivalry, and more than likely, this is going to be a physical, three point game. But, if you look at how both teams are currently playing and how they have played in the last three weeks, the advantage has to go to Pittsburgh. The most important factor? Roethlisberger has locked into a rhythm with the Haley No Huddle and that has proved to be all of the difference, while Flacco continues to search for stability.
This has been a Steelers team that in the last three weeks has progressively gotten better, and I expect that development to continue today. And I also keep having flashbacks to the many times that Polamalu has come up with the big play to win the ball game against the Ravens.
And I think he is due to make a new contribution to the memory bank.
Tonight, though they might come out a bit slow, the Steelers continue their growth and move away from the three point tradition.
Steelers 33 Ravens 21