Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I know, it is either feast or famine around here...

So we are just over 4 days from the big AFC Championship game, Ravens - Steelers III.  And the local sports talkers (the sports radio stations) are BUZZING with activity (if they weren't I would be real surprised).  And the odds are against the Ravens in this one.  The Steelers are more rested, have less key players injured, and they are playing at home.  The Ravens have injuries to at least 2 key defenders that caused them to miss time in a closely contested playoff game last week, their number 1 running back had to either hop off or be helped off of the field 3 different times in that same game, their offensive line has been hurting, and one of the stalwarts of the line missed time during the game (although he did come back in), and their top receiving threat has been playing with a bum shoulder for weeks, making him run with one arm pinned to his side most of the game.  It is going to be a lot to overcome, and while I hope for a win and will root with all my heart and soul for a win, I am not expecting or guaranteeing a win.  BUT if the Ravens ARE going to win, here is what I think they will have to do...

On Offense:
  • Get Ray Rice involved.  Ray Rice brings an element to the offense that nobody else can bring.  He is small.  He is compact.  He is explosive.  He is a great safety valve on offense.  Get him involved with some screens and play action passes.  Let him get underneath the coverage (in the spot in the zone in between the line / linebackers and the secondary), get him the ball with some space and let him make some people miss.  
  • Get Flacco going early.  The Steelers are going to commit to stopping the run.  The run is what makes the Ravens' offense go.  The only way to keep the Steelers offense honest and open up some running lanes is to get the passing game going so that the Steelers cannot put 7 and 8 men in the box.  And not just deep down field, either.  Quick slants, screens, crossing patterns, up and ins...make the Steelers drop the linebackers back into coverage and THEN Pound McClain and McGahee at them.  Short passes, continuing to control the clock and keep the defense off the field as much as possible (because they NEED to not be on the field for 35 + minutes again like they have the last 2 games).
  • Clayton and / or Heap HAVE to step up.  Derrick Mason is having a Pro Bowl caliber year, but he is hurt, and even with 2 arms he cannot do it alone.  Heap needs to claim the middle of the field, and HOLD ON TO THE BALL when he catches it.  If he is EVER going to regain his old form, it needs to happen on Sunday evening.  Clayton needs to not only catch some short passes, but also burn down the field, even as (or maybe even ESPECIALLY) as a decoy to clear out the middle third of the field, as well as the underneath routes.  Make the safety move to his side and clear out some space.
On Defense:
  • Contain Roethlisberger.  "Big Ben" kills you by getting out of immediate trouble, extending the play with his legs by getting out of the pocket, then finding an open man who has broken contain (because you cannot expect a DB to keep a guy covered indefinitely.  It is impossible in a react position to always react 100% correct to a deke or cut move).  Keep him in the pocket, and when you get him in your arms, TAKE HIM DOWN.
  • Don't break contain.  The reason the Giants were able to gash the Ravens' defense is that the Ravens broke contain and did not stay in their assignments.  Then, when Brandon Jacobs cut back there was no one there to stop him.  I know the Ravens defense is predicated on getting to the ball, but if you get sloppy / overanxious you will get burned.  Keep Willie Parker running east / west instead of north / south, let him string it out looking for a cutback lane, but DO NOT give it to him.  Eventually he either runs out of bounds or right into your arms.  Then you have him and you put the Steelers in 2nd or 3rd and long, and that is when you can goad them into making a big mistake and possibly get that turnover.
  • Don't let Hines Ward get in your head.  Hines Ward is one of those players that you love when he is on your team, but if he ISN'T on your team you can't stand him.  He has a smirk on his face after every hit and every catch.  And then there are the shots he dishes out.  Are they illegal?  No.  Are they dirty?  That is another question.  If he is in the path of a play, he has every right, in fact I would expect him to try and take out the man across from him in whatever way the rules allow.  But to lay a guy out with a crackback hit from the side when the opposing player is following the play and they are not involved in the play itself?  Calling it dirty or cheap is close.  I would call it shady.  Either way, it smacks of being a punk.  Like I said, if it is part of the play as it unfolds, that is what the game is.  But when it is 20+ yards away and the player is not full speed engaged in trying to make themselves part of the play, is crap.  But that being said, if you let him get into your head and cost the team a penalty or two (or worse, get thrown out of the game) then he wins.  And the Ravens cannot afford to lose any one on one battles, because their margin of error is too fine to allow that to happen.
Overall, here is what it is.

My heart says:

Ravens 17
Steelers 10

My brain says:

Steelers 21
Ravens 13

All I can do is hope my heart is right.

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