Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ravens v. Steelers:
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Surprisingly enough, home field can be an advantage, even in Pittsburgh (many thanks to my friend Joe Brugh for the included photograph ~ taken from section 524 of Heinz Field). In a postseason that witnessed an unprecedented strength amongst the road teams (i.e. in this postseason visiting, and home, teams were 5-5) the Pittsburgh Steelers overcame their franchise's history, and the angst that all Pittsburgh fans feel for no other reason than they are Pittsburgh fans, to earn a trip to Florida and Super Bowl XLIII. Here are some of our impressions from that game.

The Good
  1. What does one say, what can one say when everything has been said? In the afterglow of the AFC Championship can anyone really question whether or not the Steelers have the NFL's most dominant defense? During the 2008 regular season the Baltimore Ravens' offense averaged 324.0 yards per game, and 248.5 yards per game in the postseason. But in the AFC Championship the Steelers held Baltimore's offense to 198 total net yards ~ their lowest single-game total of the season (their second lowest total was 202 yards ~ against the Steelers in the second meeting between these two teams).

    Obviously the most impressive part of that low yardage total is the job that the Steelers' run defense did ~ the 73 yards rushing for Baltimore was their second-lowest total of the season (the lowest total was 10/12/08 versus Indianapolis ~ 51 yards), and came against an offense that averaged 148.5 yards of rushing during the regular season and 91.3 yards per playoff game.

    In addition to the yardage allowed, the Steelers defense sacked Joe Flacco three times, making it an even 10 sacks by Pittsburgh against Mr. Flacco on the season. To put that into some kind of perspective, in the other 16 games the Ravens played this season Mr. Flacco was sacked a total of 25 times.

    During the previous 18 games Joe Flacco threw 12 interceptions. On Sunday the Steelers picked off three passes.

    Going into the game there were some who expected the Ravens to have an answer for the Steelers. Based upon this game we are not sure the Ravens' offense understood the question.

  2. Every time Baltimore and Pittsburgh play we hear all about Ray Lewis, and what a great player he is. Fair enough ~ he is a great player; however if he is great then what about James Farrior? In the game Mr. Lewis had 6 tackles, 3 assists, defended 1 pass, and forced 1 fumble. Meanwhile, the less heralded James Farrior had 6 tackles, 3 assists, and defended 1 pass ~ and had the good fortune of having played on the winning team. Mr. Lewis talks more, but Mr. Farrior's impact on the field of play iis as least as significant.

  3. Special teams were something of a mixed bag on Sunday, but the kick coverage team did a terrific job. During the regular season Baltimore averaged 20.1 yards per return, and averaged 22.8 yards per return in the December 14th meeting between these two teams. This past Sunday the Patrick Bailey, Keyaron Fox, Anthony Madison, et al limited the Ravens to a 14.3 yard average. As a result the Ravens' average starting point was the 24 yard line and, based upon the results (i.e. the turnovers) keeping them on a long field had a significant impact.

  4. Troy Polamalu, we salute you. The interception and return for a touchdown ~ on a play which we predicted would be the most important play of the game (our exact words immediately before the snap were "this is the ballgame!") ~ is obviously a moment no Steelers fan will ever forget. But his leaping stop of Joe Flacco late in the first quarter on fourth-and-one at the Steelers 34-yard line kept Baltimore off the scoreboard (and there is no doubt as to how important that was), and certainly set the tone for the game ~ despite trailing by only six points at halftime, the Ravens ran the ball 10 times in the second half.

    However unorthodox Mr. Polamalu's offseason training regimen, here's hoping Casey Hampton gets on the same program.

  5. Last but certainly not least is the matter of Ben Roethlisberger. The passing numbers are decent if not spectacular ~ one can only imagine how those numbers would have looked if Willie Parker had held on to the first quarter pass thrown in his direction, or if the first quarter pass thrown to Santonio Holmes had been ruled a touchdown rather than an incompletion when it was reviewed, or if Limas Sweed had held on to the second quarter touchdown pass thrown to him ~ but what pleased us most was that he threw no interceptions and did not fumble the football. He created opportunities by moving around in the pocket, but when it was time to get rid of the football he did so, and did so without falling victim to Ed Reed. It was a mature and seasoned performance.
The Bad
  1. We understand that the Baltimore defense is very strong versus the run; however 52 yards of rushing, and a per rush average of 1.9 yards is putrid (by way of comparison, in the first meeting between these two teams the Steelers averaged 2.5 yards per rush, and in the second game they averaged 3.4 yards per rush). The offensive line did a very good job protecting Ben Roethlisberger on pass plays, but their inability to open holes for the running backs ~ in re-watching the game it was clear that there was little or no surge from the offensive line (i.e. Baltimore's defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage on running plays) ~ has been a problem all season long.

  2. We do not have any major complaints about the offensive game plan; however Bruce Arians nearly cost the Steelers a chance at the Super Bowl with a single play call. Early in the fourth quarter, with third-and-one at their own 37 yard line, the Steelers went to an empty backfield, and Ben Roethlisberger threw a very poor pass. Creativity is a great thing, but we question the empty backfield ~ if a pass is to be thrown, why not make it a play action pass? It was a poor play call poorly executed, and (thanks to the Steelers special teams) nearly had disasterous consequences.
The Ugly
  1. Mitch Berger's 21-yard kick in the fourth quarter appeared to be what one wag (i.e. Big Dan the 'Burgh Man) described as "an onside punt," and immediately followed the questionable third-and-one play call previously mentioned. The result of these two plays was to give Baltimore the football at their own 42 yard line, and the Ravens managed to score their second touchdown on a six play drive.

    More generally, poor punt coverage ~ a problem that cropped up versus San Diego ~ reared its ugly head again, with Jim Leonhard averaging 10.8 yards per return, and had a long of 45 yards. Though it must certainly be obvious we feel compelled to point something out: Making mistakes in special teams play, especially at this time of the season is a formula for losing, and nobody knows that better than fans of the Steelers.

  2. Chris Kemoeatu, feel free not to get any more ill-advised personal foul calls for the remainder of your career with the Steelers (he is a free agent this offseason). His transgression turned what should have been third-and-five into third-and-nineteen, effectively killing the drive. Playing with composure is always important, but is especially so in big games.
Looking forward to Super Bowl XLIII, as big as the challenges will be for the Steelers the team (and their fans) can take some comfort in knowing that they got to the big game without playing their best football. However, no one should doubt that it will take their very best effort to win their sixth Lombardi trophy.

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