The season will continue– or effectively end – on Thanksgiving
Losers of 4 of their last 5 games, the Ravens achieved a surprisingly easy victory over the New York Jets that was, in retrospect, an absolute must win against a conference rival they have dominated for the past 16 years. Why surprising? Because this 2013 season has shown fans that we have no idea what Ravens team is going to show up on any given Sunday. Just because they’re expected to win, it doesn’t mean they will (Exhibit A and B: Buffalo and Cleveland). Of course we all know by now that it’s been 5 losses by a total of 17 points.
True, but it doesn’t matter. They still end in an “L.”
Was it a must win? You bet. Take a minute to look at the standings. There are six (6) teams in the AFC with the same record of 5-6. Six teams for one playoff spot – the 6th seed. The Ravens job is hard enough as it is. If they had fallen to 4-7 we all could start researching 2014 mid-round draft prospects.
Luckily, it took all of two New York Jets offensive series to prove that the Ravens would have had to play their worst game in years to lose on Sunday. When the lead stretched to 12-3 it was effectively over. After the first Jets’ series the Ravens defense correctly schemed the wildcat or read option – or whatever it’s called – and were not going to let a rookie quarterback control the game. Geno Smith did nothing to tarnish his reputation as a turnover machine. It wasn’t a game; it was a tune up.
But things get real this Thursday. Once again, it’s Pittsburgh.
Winners of 5 of their last 7 it’s hard to remember that the Steelers started the season 0-4. They come into M&T Bank on a roll, having won 3 games in a row. Ben Roethlisberger has rediscovered his touch and is, once again, making plays with his feet as well as his arm. He’s been ably supported by Emmanuel Sanders, Heath Miller, and rookie RB Le’Veon Bell. The defense is still intact with familiar names like Timmons, Woodley, Clark, and Taylor, and Troy Polamalu is playing like his old disruptive self. This is not a Super Bowl XLIII quality defense, but is more than able to shut down an offense that is as dysfunctional as the Ravens.
To make things worse, going forward the Steelers have a much easier schedule than the Ravens. Home games against cupcakes like the Dolphins, Browns, and a suspect Bengals team (when they win the division I’ll believe it) sandwiched around an away game against the suddenly feeble Green Bay Packers.
Simply put, the Ravens offense cannot play as they did against the Jets and expect to get away with it against the Steelers. 4 field goals and one touchdown will not cut it. Here’s the sad red zone efficiency from Sunday’s game:
• In the first quarter, the Ravens drove to the Jets 13 yard line. The drive stalls and Justin Tucker kicks a field goal. Ravens 3, Jets 3.
• With 10 minutes left in the 2nd quarter the Ravens drive to the Jets 8 yard line. The drive stalls and Tucker kicks another field goal. Ravens 6, Jets 3.
• After the ensuing kickoff Terrell Suggs recovers a fumble on the Jets 18 and the Ravens “drive” to the Jets 17 where Flacco throws a pick. Ravens 6, Jets 3.
• With two minutes left in the half a Ravens drive stalls at the Jets 15. A Justin Tucker field goal makes it Ravens 9 Jets 3.
We can’t squander red zone opportunities. If the Ravens were scoring touchdowns Tyrod Taylor and the Wildcat wouldn’t smell the field after warm ups. If Joe Flacco doesn’t like splitting out as a pseudo-wide receiver maybe he should stop throwing interceptions.
There are positive signs. The Ravens have hopefully given up their fascination with Tandon Doss and his hands of stone as he was replaced by Jacoby Jones on special team returns. Jacoby’s back and it showed. In spite of my snarky comments about the Wildcat, it was nice to see Jim Caldwell try something new to spark the offense.
More importantly, the Ravens defense now knows that it has to step up every game. The defense is rounding into form nicely and it will be this unit that gives the Ravens their best chance to win out and get into post season play.
But let’s take them one at a time, starting with…..
Expecting cold and windy field conditions similar to Sunday’s game against the Jets, I look for the Ravens to play ball control to keep the ball out of Big Ben’s inventive hands. There might be running opportunities since Steelers starting nose tackle Steve McLendon is out. This can only help the Ravens beleaguered offensive line open some holes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce against a Steelers run defense that is ranked 23rd in the league.
So my keys are:
• Pound the rock –til it hurts
• Always know where Troy Polamalu is (Right, Joe?)
• Contain and, when the defense gets their hands on him, tackle Ben Roethlisberger
• No turnovers (Right again, Joe?)
Ravens 20 Steelers 17
Statistics courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats.com and NFL.com.