In 2000, the last time (that I saw) the Steelers open vs. the Ravens, Baltimore kicked Pittsburgh’s teeth in to the tune of 16-0, and folks, the score makes that one look closer than it was.
That was also the last Steelers opener I saw on US soil.
The only opener I’ve seen in 10 years from Argentina was the 30-14 “dread the spread” drubbing the Steelers took at the hands of the New England Patriots in 2002.
One thing gets lost in the afterglow of winning 8 straight openers is that conclusions drawn from opening day thrashings are tricky at best.
While the 2000 opener did signal the Ravens’ rise, those who accepted the opening day shutout as confirmation that Cowher Power was dead were sorely mistaken.
On the flip side, while the Steelers rebounded to finish the 2002 season one bogus roughing the kicker penalty away from the AFC Championship game, New England nonetheless exposed the fact that Lee Flowers, Chad Scott, Dwayne Washington and Brent Alexander could no longer anchor a shut secondary.
In to which category can we put the 35-7 romping the Ravens visited upon the Steelers? Is it just a blip that the Steelers will bounce back from, or does the Ravens dominating performance signal a power shift in the AFC North?
For better or for worse those answers will be largely known by the time the Ravens come to Heinz Field on November 6th, but until then here are some thoughts early thoughts based on today’s game.
Ravens Hit Steelers Head On
When you want to make a statement that you’re the baddest boy on the block not only do you directly attack your opponent, you attack his greatest area of strength head on. If you succeed there, then you systematically exploit his weaknesses.
The Ravens opened running the ball directly at the Steelers right side, anchored by James Harrision, as Ray Rice ripped off 36 yards on the first play from scrimmage. One play later Joe Flacco threw a picture perfect pass past Bryant McFadden to Antwan Boildin for a 27 yard touchdown.
The strength of the Cowher-Capers-LeBeau-Tomlin 3-4 zone blitz defense has been its ability to stop the run, and then dare the opponents to pass. Steelers have done the former so well so well that in recent years few teams have even bothered to running. As Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers revealed, stopping the pass as been a weakness of the Steelers.
In just three plays, the Ravens made a statement that set the tone for the entire game. They attacked the Steelers defense’s supposed strength, and exploited its known weakness.
Steelers Nation prides itself on defense, but it had accepted, however reticently in some quarters, that a high-octane passing game led by Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Health Miller and the “Young Money” would compensate for a decline in pass defense.
That’s a nice idea in principle, but it is predicated on the Steelers ability to contain Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Haloti Ngata’s presence in the backfield. Keeping the ball out of Ed Reed’s hands would also be, advisable.
The Steelers did neither of those things. Lewis, Nagata, and Suggs imposed their will on the Steelers offense, and Ed Reed had one of his biggest games against Pittsburgh in recent memory.
The unfortunate aspect to the Steelers failure on offense wasn’t simply their inability to execute, but that Cam Cameron and John (don’t call him Jim) Harbaugh had clearly out game planed them.
The Steelers threw the ball 41 times and only rushed it 16, including one scramble by Ben. Perhaps that run-pass ratio is a little distorted by some excess garbage time throws, but Rashard Mendenhall ran fairly well as did Issac Redman.
The Steelers clearly entered the game intending to air the ball out, but failed to make adjustments when that wasn’t working.
Where To Go From Here?
The Ravens won this round by a clean knockout.
Fortunately for the Steelers this fight is scheduled for another 15 rounds. The Ravens certainly wish them no well in this regard, but Baltimore has helped clarify some of the questions the Steelers must answer as they look toward rounds 2-15.
- How much of the Raven’s ability to both dominate the line of scrimmage and protect its quarterback was due to the drop off in play by James Harrison?
- Say the line, and not Harrison, gets the blame for failing to stop the run. Hood and Heyward give the Steelers options on the outside, but what do they do if Big Snack’s play is dropping off?
- Both Jonathan Scott and Doug Legursky looked lost at times against the likes of Suggs and Nagata, how long of a leash do these men get?
- (See above question first). Now that the Steelers signed Troy Polamalu, does the salary cap afford them the luxury of picking up the red phone to Max Starks and/or Flozell Adams?
- The Steelers have the weapons to mount a balanced attack on offense. Is the offensive staff willing and able to take a balanced approach?
There are other questions of course, but these are the big ones.
Streak Ends at 8, But Their Was Life Before Then
After winning 8 straight opening games the Steelers were bound to lose one, and lose they did to the Ravens in dramatic fashion.
Credit the Ravens. They planned for victory, they prepared for victory, they went out and seized victory and never looked back. But Baltimore gets no style points added for winning in such impressive fashion just as Pittsburgh gets no extra points deducted for falling so flat on their faces.
Fans now forget, but opening day debacles were more or less a stable of Bill Cowher’s first ten seasons. The lesson to take is that an opening day debacle doesn’t have to spell doom for the rest of the season if the guys in the locker room react appropriately.
Mike Tomlin’s imperative is to see that they do.
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