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Poise and pocket presence and awareness are descriptive terms rarely employed to evaluate the performance of Ravens quarterbacks in the past. Today, the Ravens employ a quarterback who embodies the essence of those terms. The Steelers at times were in McNairâ€™s face and he stared that threat down like Rocky Balboa stared down Clubber Lang in Rocky III. â€œGo for it!â€
McNair stepped up in the pocket and found open receivers down field while buying an extra second or two to enable his targets to gain separation. His passes were crisp and delivered at times in small windows. His TD strikes to Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams were picture perfect and his calm demeanor and cool body language on the third and goal play fake to Daniel Wilcox at the Steelers one sold the run beautifully. One could argue that neither of McNairâ€™s two interceptions were his fault and if you take those away, it would be hard to find a flaw in his effort on Sunday. He carried out the game plan with precision and despite the extreme familiarity these teams have with each other, he kept the Steelers off balance the entire afternoon and he never allowed the second and third and long situations rattle him after a few untimely false starts by Jason Brown and Adam Terry.
Brian Billick on Steve McNair: "How many times do we have to say it: He is a phenomenal athlete. Phenomenal cool. It is a gift to have him with us."
Youâ€™ll get no argument here coach!
RUNNING BACK: B+
Clearly Jamal Lewis isnâ€™t the runner he once was. He just canâ€™t seem to get to the daylight quick enough even when he actually recognizes it. But his efforts cannot be overlooked and he willingly absorbs a pounding to help Brian Billick and Steve McNair manage the game, particularly when the Ravens deliver body shots to opponents to thwart any potential momentum. Such was the case on Sunday. Lewis also ran over Larry Foote on a dump off pass and by another LB on a swing pass to the right. And while the totals were hardly Tomlinson-like (33 carries for 103 yards) they did take their toll. Ovie Mughelli now needs to be accounted for. He has been effective on the quick hitter out of the I-formation and he continues to show nice hands in the passing game as an outlet receiver. He is also developing as a lead blocker and looks fresh doing so. That may pay dividends down the stretch.
Who do you want to take out? That might be the question that opposing defensive coordinators ask themselves and when they do and if they make a selection, the Ravens will have an answer.
Yesterday the Steelers picked Todd Heap to double up on in the first half and the Ravens answered with Mark Clayton who received less attention than solid veteran Derrick Mason. In the second half, Clayton commanded more attention which freed up some space for Heap and also Demetrius Williams who continues to make play after play. Down at the goal line, opponents will focus upon Jamal Lewis and Heap. So the Ravens answer with Daniel Wilcox, who by the way made a nice block on Joey Porter to prevent a sack yesterday. It is a credit to the Ravens front office and coaching staff that in two seasons, the Ravens now possess one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. This grade is affected by Mark Claytonâ€™s muff towards the end of the first half that resulted in a Steelers interception, leading to Pittsburghâ€™s only score. The grade was also dinged as a result of Wilcoxâ€™ fumble. One also has to wonder if Williams made the wrong read on McNairâ€™s second interception. Safety help was rolling over from the inside and had Williams cut off his route to the outside (where McNair placed it) the result would have been either a completion at the three, interference or an incompletion.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
For what should be the fifth consecutive game (save Bollerâ€™s stumble last week leading to a sack), this unit kept Steve McNair clean despite Jonathan Ogdenâ€™s absence and the need to replace Jason Brown due to injury later in the game (Brown did return and should be ok going forward). As is always the case against the Steelers front seven, the sledding was tough but given the change in personnel and the stout play of late from the Steelersâ€™ front three and their very capable linebackers, the O-Line deserves its props. Many believed that McNair would not last the season behind what appeared to be the teamâ€™s Achilles Heel. That hasnâ€™t been the case and this group’s improvement from last year to this year parallels the improvement in the receiving corps from â€˜04 to â€˜05.
Mike Flynn is playing some of his best ball of the season and he did it against a foe who has dominated him over the years, perennial Pro Bowler Casey Hampton. Adam Terry kept Joey Porter in check; Jason Brown is a wrecking ball and Keydrick Vincent did a nice job getting to the second level at times. Tony Pashos has become a model of consistency. The unit took a hit on this grade from several pre-snap penalties, perhaps the most glaring weakness of this unit. They should be aided by home field advantage in the playoffs.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A+
Just as they did in Round 1 against the Steelers, this unit dominated at the point of attack and controlled the Steelers by controlling the running game. And this time, they did it pretty much on their own without needing much clean up assistance from the Ravens highly capable backers. This unit coupled with the backers were in Ben Roethlisbergerâ€™s head throughout the contest. Even when the Steelersâ€™ QB had time to throw he rushed his throws and as a result he was off target throughout the afternoon. It was as though he was expecting to take a hit at any second when the protection was there — a perfect case in point was his first quarter pass to a wide open Santonio Holmes who had plenty of running room. That pass was the basketball equivalent of a layup and Roethlisberger clinked it off the bottom of the rim.
"Ben wasn’t going to take nine more sacks, so he got rid of the ball early today," said Trevor Pryce "The ball I tipped that Landry intercepted, Ben shouldn’t have thrown it, because I was standing dead in front of him. But, again, you don’t want to get into that thing where people are teeing off and hitting your quarterback over and over and over. He decided to risk it, and it did not go very well." Pryceâ€™s tip was one of a few during key situations in the game.
Haloti Ngata hardly appears to be hitting the proverbial rookie wall. If anything, Ngata seems to be rounding into top form, contributing 6 tackles, one of which was a sack and another was a tackle for a loss of speedy Willie Parker.
Going into this season, there was some concern over the Ravens inability to cover tight ends and the Ravens schedule was to feed them the leagueâ€™s best throughout the season. The Ravens have more than answered this concern. Part of the credit goes to the way Dawan Landry and Ed Reed have worked together but even more credit has to go to Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott who yesterday provided more solid coverage against the capable Heath Miller. Scott was also solid in gap assignment providing sure tackling and helping to frustrate Pro Bowler RB Parker. Ray Lewis wasnâ€™t asked to do much but his orchestration of the defense and his directing of the frequent shifting by the Ravens defense based upon pre-snap reads kept Roethlisberger and the Steelers guessing. More often than not the Steelers guessed wrong.
The Ravens secondary is no longer challenged by the Steelersâ€™ receivers. That unit misses the vertical presence of Plaxico Burress and the gadgetry of Antwaan Randle El. Santonio Holmes has the speed but lacks the experience and that combination isnâ€™t a great match for the Ravens secondary which has improved immensely since the Carolina game. Samari Rolle shook off a stinger injury from last week and played solid while surprisingly providing sure tackling even against the tough Hines Ward. Dawan Landry is developing a knack for making plays. Yesterday he again showed solid hands picking off his fifth pass of the season and returning it to the Steelersâ€™ 3. Ed Reed continues to stay home and stick to his assignments and the turnovers are beginning to come. Yesterday Reed chipped in with a pick and a key fumble recovery and return. Corey Ivy continues to bring a feistiness and a competitive spirit to the nickel position. Yesterday he had a sack and a huge strip of Parker at the Ravens 3. Chris McAlister was solid and continues to show why he is one of the leagueâ€™s best tacklers from the corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Matt Stover showed improvement on his kickoffs from last week. This week on average his kickoffs reached just inside the Steelersâ€™ 3, although he was aided by a five yard penalty kicking from the 35 on one kick off. Sam Koch averaged 46 yards on 4 punts and more importantly, the punting team netted 41 yards on each punt facing a dangerous punt returner Santonio Holmes. Koch also added to his season total of 27 (tied for 5th in the NFL) with 2 punts inside the 20, one at the 4 and another at the 17.
The kickoff return and kickoff coverage teams struggled. Cory Ross doesnâ€™t look like the answer in the return game, particularly on punts. Najeh Davenport averaged 28.3 yards on three kick returns while the Ravens averaged just 16 yards on two returns.
COACHING: OFFENSE A+/DEFENSE A+
The NFL is all about exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses better than they exploit yours. Brian Billick attack the Steelers secondary and it took Polamalu out of the box and placed him downfield where the obviously rusty Pro Bowl safety would prefer not to be. Billick also attacked through the air on first down to keep the Steelers off balance and he did an excellent job of getting all the offensive skill positions touches, keeping them highly engaged in the game.
On defense Rex Ryan wisely decided to not change up a good thing established in Baltimore. If anything Ryan had his defense moving and morphing into a variety of shapes even more for an obviously perplexed Roethlisberger. In two games against the Steelers, Pittsburgh has converted just 3 of 26 third-down opportunities. Teams without playmakers on the outside will die a slow death against Ryanâ€™s unit and that includes the NFLâ€™s current darlings, the Chargers.
NOTABLES AND QUOTABLES: "We were in his face, but he stepped up and made some amazing throws where only his guy could catch the ball," Steelers DE Brett Keisel saidâ€¦"We didn’t even lay a hand on him," LB James Farrior said of McNair. "That was a big part of the game.â€â€¦When asked if the Ravens are ready to succeed the Steelers as champions Farrior said, "I don’t know if they’re Super Bowl caliber. That’s to be seen. But they played us well. They beat us both times, so you have to give it up for them. Give them a lot of credit. They came into a hostile environment and took it to us today."â€¦maybe to get there the Ravens need the favorable officiating that the Steelers benefited from in â€˜05…."â€¦"[The fumble] changed everything," Sometimes Fast Willie Parker said. "I take the good with the good, but on that fumble it was my fault, so I take the bad with the bad. I thought I was down at first, but I looked at the replay, and I saw I wasn’t."â€¦"Their defense is really good," Pittsburgh center Jeff Hartings said. "I respect their defense a lot. They play hard. They play differently than any other defense, and they did a good job against us in the two games, that’s for sure."â€¦"I’m sure [Roethlisberger] had [those 9 sacks in Baltimore] in the back of his head," said Ed Reed…Samari Rolle added: "You could tell he was getting rid of the ball a little quicker than normal."
The Ravens were able to dominate the Steelers for the second consecutive game despite the three turnovers and 12 penalties for 89 yardsâ€¦Ben Roethlisberger outrushed Willie Parker 33 yards to 29…The Ravens swept the Steelers for the first time in their history by a combined winning score of 58-7 and one could argue the 7 was a gift courtesy of an ill-advised time out at the end of the first halfâ€¦During the two â€˜06 contests Roethlisberger had one TD pass and four interceptions and an average QB rating of 46.7…Willie Parker has 23 carries for 51 yards for an average of 2.2 yards. Against the rest of the league Parker is averaging 4.7 yardsâ€¦The Ravens had 14 sacks v. the Steelers this season. The Steelers had none. Enough said?