By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
It's Steelers-Ravens week, in case you've been rooming with fugitive Libyan dictators, and the heated/hyperbolic portion of our program gets going Wednesday when the first swarms of cameras and microphones hit the teams' practice facilities.
Better bring backup.
LaMarr Woodley might revisit his summer dig that Baltimore will never win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco at quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger might recall Haloti Ngata breaking his nose. Hines Ward might demonstrate some end-zone sambas. And over in Owings Mills, Md., expect no less color from the Ravens' Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed.
But before we dive into all that, let me throw this out: For once, I'm not sure the game will rival the hype. I see the Steelers not just as favorites, but as prohibitive favorites.
Here are seven reasons why:
7. No. 7, of course
This one's the easiest.
Roethlisberger is Baltimore's Larry Brown, Francisco Cabrera and David Volek all rolled into one, except that he keeps coming back to drive the stake deeper. Overall, he's 9-2 against the Ravens — 6-0 since John Harbaugh became their coach — and he's done it with a broken nose, with blood on his jersey, and with Suggs wrapped around his ankles.
6. Heap big mistake
The Ravens dumped several veterans after the lockout, notably wide receiver Derrick Mason, running back Willis McGahee and, most inexplicably, tight end Todd Heap, the franchise leader in receiving touchdowns and yards and the one offensive player the Steelers never really have been able to counter. Heap, 31, rejected Baltimore's request to sign at a lower price and went to the Arizona Cardinals.
I brought this up with the Steelers' Heath Miller, Heap's longtime counterpart, and he took the high road.
"Todd's a great player," Miller said. "I'm sure they've got some other talent."
I'm not. Ed Dickson, Heap's replacement, is a second-year man who had to win the job in a camp battle.
5. Formation euphoria
While Baltimore had a duel to turn up just one tight end, the Steelers spent their final preseason game alternating formations between three tight ends and five wide receivers. And in the tight-end set, it was backup David Johnson, not Miller, getting most of the passes, as if to strut the depth.
Good luck scheming for that.
"Our offense can do it any way you want," Johnson told me with a broad grin.
The Ravens still have the great Reed, but their corners are rookie Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams, whose only NFL start came in 2009. The other safety, Tom Zbikowski, has two career interceptions.
4. No secondary concern
For all the angst over the Steelers' corners, their secondary will have to be concerned with Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and no one else. Baltimore's No. 3 receiver, David Reed, must serve a one-game league suspension for marijuana possession, and the rest are rookies.
And did I mention Heap's gone?
3. The Steelers' defense is old
How is that an advantage?
Well, Mike Tomlin, the only man on either side talking Tuesday, responded this way in his weekly news conference when asked about a defense with eight starters 30 or older: "We are who we are. We're not fighting any stereotypes or darts being thrown our way. We welcome them. They usually provide a positive energy for us. So keep talking about how old they are. I appreciate that. Makes my job easier."
This issue has been terribly overblown. It's been all of eight months since the Steelers turned in one of the great defensive seasons in NFL history.
2. Snap 'n sack
Baltimore quarterbacks were sacked 15 times in the preseason, third most in the NFL, and it wasn't a coincidence. Center Matt Birk and left tackle Bryant McKinnie missed the entire preseason to injuries, guard Marshal Yanda has had back spasms, and right tackle Michael Oher is new to that side. This line's first snap together will come shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday.
Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and even a half-healthy James Harrison should feast.
For all the areas in which Baltimore has tried to out-Steeler the Steelers, the Ravens have failed to find the one element the Steelers can't handle: A quick-strike quarterback.
Flacco shows some of that at times but seldom against the Steelers. He is 0-6 going head-to-head with Roethlisberger and, in those games, has five touchdowns against six interceptions. Just remember his final half of football last season at Heinz Field, when he came up so small that he was intercepted, fumbled a snap, missed a wide-open Heap, overthrew Mason and was sacked.
Here comes more of that.
Steelers 31, Ravens 13.