Saturday, January 17, 2009

Steelers- Ravens AFC Championship Preview

First, some links in this super-duper Preview of the AFC Championship edition on TRS.
-LaMarr Woodley breakout game and the weeks leading up to it are chronicled tongue-in-cheek by James Walker. I mean he wasn't really over-eating and depressed as Troy claims. I did chuckle a little when I read the line about James Harrison constantly being double-teamed. James Walker, if by "double-teamed" you mean being held by two guys at once, then I agree.

-Unfortunately Bill Simmons picked the Steelers in his weekly gambling picks column. Bad news considering the Sports Guy went 0-4 last week on his picks and openly admits that his prediction is a kiss of death.

-An update on the Ravens injury report. Samari Rolle is apparently out for the AFC Championship and Terrell Suggs figures to be a game-time decision. I have a VERY hard time believing that Suggs won't play at all in this one. even if its just as a third down pass rusher or something like that, I think Suggs finds his way onto the field.

-Ron Cook is apparently in love with Ed Reed. Reed truely is probably the most disruptive defensive player in football these days, followed closely by our own Troy Polamalu. But I agree with Cookie, Troy is number two on that list, and there's not a ton of room for debate there. I'm not gonna lie, with Ben's penchant for taking chances downfield, Ed Reed scares the bejeezus out of me for the game tomorrow. And Gene Collier pretty much backs that up in his article about the game as well.

-In an interesting piece, Mike Smith, the Falcons Head Coach and reigning NFL Coach of the Year, breaks down the two league title games. He gives some interesting insights into both squads, but also points out some of the obvious, like Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco similarities.-The always superb Peter King makes his pick for the AFC Championship game, as well as making some points about the game worth reading. King thinks the biggest difference in this game is going to be the injuries for the Ravens. I tend to agree.

-5 subplots for Ravens-Steelers. I think someone really needs to explore the similarities between Flacco and Roethlisberger. That hasn't been covered nearly enough.

-The Baltimore Sun profiles the divider line between Steeler Nation and Ravens country. I always think Nation sounds bigger than country, especially when it's all capitalized like that.

-The Sun also put together a comprehensive list of who different media outlets are picking to win the game. I really don't like when the vast majority of experts pick the Steelers. The obvious game rarely goes the way its supposed to.

-David Steele of the Baltimore Sun predicts that Steelers-Rvens is about to become the pre-eminent rivalry in football and that these two teams are set up to have incredible success for the forseeable future. I hope he's right, as Steelers-Birdies is never dull.

-Sportsline's AFC Title preview. Nothing earth-shattering here.

-John Harris and Mike Prisuta's column from the Trib. As always if you only have time for one, make it Prisuta. He is probably the most underrated writer in the Burgh. Prisuta is right when he urges the Steelers not to take unnecessary chances and tk "keep it simple" as he says. He urges the Steelers not to make the first mistake, and when the Ravens make a mistake, be sure to pounce on it. He's exactly right. The one thing that could swing this game to the Ravens, as I've already said, is turnovers and mistakes. They feed off that energy and that momentum and will bury the Steelers with it if they can.

-From the Steelers Today Blog, the Ravens are, in fact, hypocrtical about Hines Ward. I fully agree with this thought. Hines is a Raven-type player through and through. They'd love to have him I'm sure.

-From the Steel Curtain Rising Blog, another fan is equally as pissed about the ridiculous amount of holding of James Harrison that NEVER gets called, only instead of bad-mouthing NFL officials and calling them names not fit for print, this writer got a bit more creative and spun it in a humorous way.

-A weird, and mostly unprofessional list of reasons for Ravens fans to hate Steelers fans. Each one is about 3 paragraphs long, at most, which leads me to believe that the writer A) Has very little material, B) Is Lazy, or C) Is Barely Literate. Actually, I'm thinking he may have the trifecta. Why don't you goofy newspapers leave the trash-talking where it belongs: on the Blogs. I mean it's not like these are even good trash-talking points on Pittsburgh. I mean, "Weird Bridges"? Really? You can't figure out why we have 446 bridges? I don't suppose its because we have three rivers in the city is it? Maybe we should just have one insanely long bridge that is constantly congested, is that how Baltimorons (I doubt that's the name for people that live there, but its probably close) prefer it? I'd rather have hundreds upon hundred of bridges with little traffic on most than the other way around. Thanks. Glad you aren't a city planner. And you are complaining about the Fort Pitt Tunnel being a claustrophobic's nightmare? I suppose we should just ignore the fact that the Baltimore Harbour tunnel is more than twice the length of the Fort Pitt and is UNDER WATER!!!! I imagine claustrophobes have quite the issue with that, thank you very much. But then again, you're just a newspaper writer, what do you have to worry about facts for? Yet another example of the dwindling respect level in papers. (END RANT)

-Halfway down this page, the excellent Mike Lombardi gives some insight on Steelers-Ravens. Its interesting the Ravens have not won the time of possession battle in either playoff game. Also interesting that the Steelers have never lost a playoff game when Fast Willie is the starter (5-0). I hadn't thought of that.

Okay well that's enough of that, let's get to the breakdown.
5 Key Matchups

1. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ed Reed
In case you skimmed through the above (and I don't blame you if you did), one of my key points was the work of the mighty Ed Reed. Reed can turn this game all by himself with one mistake by Roethlisberger. And with Ben's love of the downfield pass, that gravely concerns me. What we need to see is the Big Ben we saw in Round 2 who took great care of the ball, was quick to get rid of it, and any downfield chance he took was smart and had very low risk. Reed is as big of a gamebreaker as there is in football today, and probably has just as good a chance at scoring as the entire Ravens offense.
2. James Harrison vs. Joe Flacco
Some of Harrison's biggest games of his career have come against Baltimore, including that monster game a year ago when that catapulted him into a household name. Expect Dick LeBeau to unleash Harrison yet again and use him to try and rattle the seemingly unflappable young QB. As usual, expect Harrison to be illegally held every time he blitzes, and as usual I'm sure the refs will swallow their whistles whole.

3. Willie Parker vs. Ray Lewis
Obviously the matchup goes a lot deeper than this, but it's flashy symbolism for the Steelers desire to establish the run and the Ravens excellent run defense. Parker was superb last week, and I imagine Bruce Arians will do his best to try to get Parker going yet again in the early going of this one. And for that I wish him best of luck, because I can't imagine Ray-Ray and his crew letting up many yards, but if Willie shows that same burst I expect he'll be able to at least break off a few big gains even if he can't consistently pick up the yards.

4. Ravens Blitzes vs. Steelers pass protection
The Steelers O-Line was yet another pleasant surprise we got in Round 2, and if the Steelers are to win this game, they need to play well again. Expect Suggs, Scott, and Ngata to do their best to overpower and overwhem the much-maligned Steelers O-line. Max Starks has continued his fine work on the left side, but the rest of the line played very well last week as well, with the exception of the still-struggling Darnell Stapleton. Chris Kemoeautu was especially good last week as a pulling guard.

5. Dick LeBeau vs. Cam Cameron
Two of the very best coordinators in the game square off in what should be a very interesting matchup. I still think Cameron got a terribly raw deal last year in Miami and never had a shot to succeed. Still, he has been excellent handling Flacco this year and putting together great game plans for him to succeed. LeBeau meanwhile is one of the best defensive coordinators the NFL has ever seen and is known far and wide for his spectacular blitz packages that can confuse any QB, let alone a rookie.

Other Random Thoughts
-Something tells me that Hines Ward has a huge game in this one. We all know how well Hines and the Ravens get along. And we also know how Hines thrives in his role as an antagonist. He lives for games and moments like this one. He also has become one of the game's pre-eminent third down threats, and given the stingy Ravens D, I expect that third down situations will be a key to success for both squads.

-The Ravens injuries are going to play a factor in this, but I think the Samari Rolle injury is the one that hurts them the most. Rolle is a very good corner, certainly much better than his replacement, Frank Walker. With Santonio Holmes playing very well and Nate Washington turning into a legit downfield threat, having to play guys like Walker and Corey Ivy more than they otherwise would is going to end up biting the Ravens in the ass.

-I haven't watched enough Ravens games to know this intimately, but I'll be interested to see how Joe Flacco reacts to Troy Polamalu's pre-snap shifts. More experienced QBs typically audible or at least bluff audibling when they see Polamalu settle in somewhere, but I don't know if Flacco will do that, as I'm sure Cameron will have at least partially accounted for this and may not want Flacco overruling him on the field.

-I know he's been around for ages and can't possibly have a ton left in the tank, but I never like facing Derrick Mason. He's like Hines Ward without the ferocious hitting, and always seems to come up big against the Steelers.

-I'm not sorry to see Le'Ron McClain banged up. I figure Willis McGahee and (if he plays) Ray Rice will be mostly ineffective, although McGahee has had some moments against the Steelers D. What I don't want to see is a hungry, bruising runner like McClain barrelling through the middle of our D for 3 and 4 yards a pop. I don't know how effective we'd be at stopping him on a cold, bitter day like tomorrow.

-I'd like to see LaMarr Woodley build on that big game of a week ago. If James Harrison is getting doubleheld blocked by the Ravens, Woodley should be in single coverage and should be able to make the most of his opportunities to get to Flacco. I'd also like to see LeBeau deploy the unbelievably fast Lawrence Timmons get more snaps in place of Larry Foote. Sure Foote is the more stable and more sound player, but Timmons can make incredible plays happen, and can bring superb pressure from the middle of the field, as well as more than capably run with the likes of Todd Heap.

The Pick: Steelers 20 Ravens 13 This is going to be a ridiculously physical and violent game and surely won't be for the faint of heart. i expect the Ravens to do their best to try to set the tone early on with their physicality on defense. I think they also have a fair amount of success shutting down Willie Parker in the run game. But the Steelers will be persistent in setting up the ground game, even if it means a few early punts. Setting up even a mediocre rushing attack will enable Ben to test the Ravens corners downfield, and I think Santonio has another big scoring play, this time on a long pass from Roethlisberger that not even the great Ed Reed can stop. As for the Ravens offense, I think Flacco gets hit early and often but does his best to avoid taking big loss sacks and making costly mistakes. I think eventually, though, he is forced into a turnover or two and the Steelers capitalize.

So Here We Go Steelers.

I'll leave you with this

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