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CHFF Game of the Week: Ravens-Steelers

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Baltimore (5-2) visits Pittsburgh (6-2) Sunday in a primetime old-school AFC North street fight that would warm the heart of the Cold, Hard Football Facts – if we had one.

The Ravens forced seven turnovers and dominated the Steelers, 35-7 at home back in Week 1. It was Baltimore's biggest victory in the intense 15-year history of the rivalry.

But Pittsburgh has been the AFC's best team since that loss, with a 6-1 record and an impressive win last week over fellow AFC heavyweight New England. Baltimore has been inconsistent since racing out of the gates, including a bad loss to Jacksonville and a tougher-than-expect three-point win vs. Arizona last week.

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Here are three Cold, Hard Football Facts you need to know about Baltimore-Pittsburgh before kickoff:

1. Start carving the bronze bust: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) is a bona fide Hall of Fame quarterback

Pittsburgh passer Roethlisberger has done it all in just seven-plus NFL seasons: He's won two Super Bowls and three conference championships. He's the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl (XL) and he produced a legend-making championship-winning drive three years later against Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII.

He also owns the Pittsburgh single-season record for TD passes (32 in 2007) and led the Steelers to an undefeated 13-0 record as a rookie starter before his team fell to the dynastic Patriots in the 2004-05 AFC title game.

It's worth nothing that Big Ben today is still only 29 years old.

Yet when talk turns to the game's greatest quarterbacks, Roethlisberger rarely cracks the conversation. The general belief among the pigskin public is that he does not put up elite passing numbers and is the lucky beneficiary a great ground game and great defense.

The pigskin public needs to do some hard labor at a Cold, Hard Football Facts re-education camp.

The truth is that Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame quarterback who has put up historic numbers that make him one of the most prolific passers of all time.

In fact, he's more prolific than Brady, Manning, Brees, Rivers or any of the other passers routinely placed ahead of him on the "best QBs" lists – provided you study the right numbers, the numbers that win games.

The single most important and easy to understand individual passing stat, for example, is passing yards per attempt – how many yards a player generates with every single pass attempt. It's a critical measure of individual and team-wide success today and all throughout history.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, is one of just five players in the entire history of football to average more than 8.0 YPA.

Here's the top five all time in career average per attempt:

• Otto Graham – 8.63 YPA
• Sid Luckman – 8.42 YPA
Aaron Rodgers(notes) – 8.16 YPA
• Norm Van Brocklin – 8.14 YPA
Ben Roethlisberger – 8.04 YPA

It's an incredible number: Big Ben may not be the prettiest passer. But he gets the ball downfield as effectively as any quarterback in the history of football. And among quarterbacks who played in the last half century, only statistical phenom and reigning Super Bowl MVP Rodgers has been more productive.

Passing YPA is important because teams win when they get the ball down field better than their opponents.

In fact, it's far more important for quarterbacks to be effective than it is to be prolific. Quarterbacks who pass for more yards win about half the time. Quarterbacks with a higher average per attempt win about 75 percent of the time.

Just look at the list above: it's no coincidence that the all-time leader in passing YPA, Graham, is the only QB in history to lead his team to six straight NFL championship games. Luckman led the dominant Bears to four titles in the 1940s. Rodgers is on pace to become the all-time leader in almost every measure of passing efficiency is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Van Brocklin won championships with two different teams (1951 Rams, 1960 Eagles).

Big Ben, for his part, averaged an unprecedented 8.9 YPA as a rookie and won every game he played before falling in the AFC title game; he averaged an incredible 8.9 YPA again in his sophomore campaign, which ended with a Super Bowl title.

You can credit Pittsburgh's consistently great defense or its vastly overrated ground game all you want.

But you don't win consistently without very effective play at QB. It's no coincidence that the Steelers became a consistent threat to win the Super Bowl after a 25-year drought the day the historically prolific Roethlisberger took over at quarterback."

2. But Pittsburgh has its work cut out against ageless Ray Lewis(notes) and another lights-out Baltimore defense

The Ravens have been defined by their defense since landing in Baltimore in 1996. It's no coincidence the team drafted Ray Lewis in the first round that very same year. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer who some argue is the greatest middle linebacker of all time.

If Baltimore's consistent dominance on defense is a measure of Lewis's individual ability, then there's plenty of merit to the case for him as G-O-A-T.

The Ravens took three years to get their defensive feet under them. But since then the club has fielded a top-six scoring defense 10 times in 13 seasons. The 2000 Ravens fielded the stingiest defense of the Live Ball Era (1978-present), surrendering just 165 points (10.3 PPG).

The 2011 unit is shaping up as among the best yet: No. 1 in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense through seven games.

But Baltimore has been dominant up and down the board in those traditional indicators as well as in the Quality Stats we use at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com. Shown in the chart is a comparison of the Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses in several key measures.

Baltimore, in other words, does everything well: it's great against the run, great against the pass, best in the NFL on third down and the best defensive front in football as measured by our Defensive Hog Index, traditionally a critical measure of overall team success.

Interestingly, the Steelers defense has a lot of statistical flaws, especially by their standards. Pittsburgh is a Defensive Hog dynasty, for example. The AFC champs last year ranked No. 1 in run defense (3.0 YPA) and No. 1 on our Defensive Hog Index. They've tumbled badly in both indicators this year.

But it hasn't impacted the team where it matters most: Pittsburgh is still No. 3 in scoring defense.

Bottom line: both teams have great defenses. But Baltimore's has been just a little bit better.

3. Joe Flacco(notes) is doing his best imitation of Kyle Boller(notes), Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks

Baltimore's defense dominates year after year. But its offense has famously struggled behind mediocre to bad quarterbacks for nearly the entire length and breadth of the team's history.

Flacco was seen as the savior when he was drafted out of Delaware in 2008 and responded with a strong season by the lowly standards of rookie quarterbacks. It looked like Flacco had arrived last season, when he produced the best season by any quarterback in Ravens history.

But through six games this year, he's regressed badly. And, if we're being very honest about his production, he's a bottom-tier quarterback at this point in the 2011 season. Here's how Flacco has performed in key efficiency indicators over the last two seasons:

• 2010: 62.6%, 25 TD, 10 INT, 7.4 YPA, 93.6 rating
• 2011: 53.8%, 8 TD, 6 INT, 6.7 YPA, 75.4 rating

The numbers are ugly. Great quarterbacks in this day and age complete 2 of 3 passes, close in on 8.0 YPA and produce a 95-plus passer rating. Flacco completes little more than 1 of 2 passes with less than 7.0 YPA and a passer rating that's 7.1 points below the league average.

Hell, Tim Tebow(notes) is the mostly widely criticized QB in football this year. And even he boasts 4 passing TDs and 1 INT in just two starts – with a Flacco-esque 75.1 passer rating.

Yes, that's right: Tebow and Flacco are neck and neck in the passer rating race.

Fans and analysts like to say that "defense wins championships." It's a great line. But the truth is that well-balanced teams win championships. Teams with few weaknesses win championships.

And right now, Baltimore is not a balanced team. And it has what appears to be a huge weakness at quarterback. It's statistically impossible for the Ravens to win a Super Bowl if Flacco does not show vast improvement over the second half of the season in several key measures of passing efficiency.

Just ask Trent Dilfer, the widely criticized quarterback along for the ride with Baltimore's defensive-fueled championship 2000 team.

Dilfer, to his credit, was quietly efficient during that team's four-game postseason run: he averaged 8.1 YPA, threw 3 TD with just 1 INT and posted a respectable 83.7 passer rating – in each instance he was more effective than Flacco has been here in 2011.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts

We discussed the importance of passing yards per attempt in our discussion of Roethlisberger's historic productivity above.

Well, one of the key Quality Stats we use to measure defenses at Cold, Hard Football Facts is Defensive Passing YPA – how many yards opposing passers generate, on average, against your defense.

It's a critical measure of team success. And if you don't believe the all-powerful Cold, Hard Football Facts, you should believe the all-powerful defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau.

The Pittsburgh defensive coordinator uses the same efficiency indicators we do to measure the performance of his Pittsburgh defenses – at least according to former Steelers DB DeShea Townsend(notes). We talked to him about these indicators during a live remote radio broadcast in Dallas before the Green Bay-Pittsburgh Super Bowl.

Basically, teams have a very good chance of winning if they make life miserable on opposing passers.

We discussed the importance of Defensive Passing YPA the day before the Super Bowl in Dallas back in February with former Steelers defensive back

And both these defensive dynamos are great in Defensive Real Passing YPA (which adjusts for sacks to be a true measure of team success. In fact, here's the top five through Week 8 of the 2011 season.

Top 5 Defensive Passing YPA (through Week 8)

1. Baltimore – 4.82 YPA
2. Detroit – 4.84 YPA
3. Pittsburgh – 4.85 YPA
4. Houston – 5.30 YPA
5. New Orleans – 5.71 YPA

Impressive numbers. To understand how tough it is to pass on Baltimore or Pittsburgh, keep in mind that six defenses give up a higher average than the Steelers or Ravens when opponents run the ball.

The Baltimore and Pittsburgh pass defenses are not just great this year they're stout by their own championship standards. In fact, let's compare the 2011 Ravens and Steelers to the Super Bowl-winning defenses in each franchise's history.

Defensive Passing YPA

1974 Steelers: 3.75 YPA
1975 Steelers: 4.18 YPA
2008 Steelers: 4.29 YPA
2011 Ravens: 4.82 YPA
1979 Steelers: 4.84 YPA
2011 Steelers: 4.85 YPA
1978 Steelers: 4.93 YPA
2000 Ravens: 5.32 YPA
2005 Steelers: 5.32 YPA
2010 Steelers: 5.34 YPA*

That's some pretty good company for the 2011 Ravens and Steelers. Remember, we're comparing this year's defenses to the great Steel Curtain champions of the 1970s and Baltimore's record-setting unit of 2000.

*By the way, it's no coincidence that the worst team on this list, the 2010 Steelers, is the only team on the list that lost its Super Bowl bid.

The Pick

The Ravens dominated the first meeting – but that dominance was based largely on the fact that won the turnover battle by an incredible margin of 7-1. Baltimore forced three picks and recovered four fumbles.

It's not statistically impossible for Pittsburgh to cough up the ball seven times again – but it would be a miracle if it happened again.

All things being equal, the Steelers have been the better team since that first meeting. The Ravens have also struggled on the road this year with bad losses at Tennessee and Jacksonville. It's only road win was at lowly and inept St. Louis. Coupled with a big advantage at quarterback and it's Pittsburgh's day to gain revenge.

Pick: Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 17

ColdHardFootballFacts.com is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. E-mail comments to contact@coldhardfootballfacts.com.

Season record: 6-2

Week 1 pick: Detroit 24, Tampa 20
Week 1 result: Detroit 27, Tampa 20

Week 2 pick: New England 27, San Diego 24
Week 2 result: New England 35, San Diego 21

Week 3 pick: New Orleans 30, Houston 23
Week 3 result: New Orleans 40, Houston 33

Week 4 pick: Detroit 26, Dallas 24
Week 4 result: Detroit 34, Dallas 30

Week 5 pick: Green Bay 34, Atlanta 24
Week 5 result: Green Bay 25, Atlanta 14

Week 6 pick: Detroit 23, San Francisco 20
Week 6 result: San Francisco 25, Detroit 19

Week 7 pick: Tennessee 27, Houston 21
Week 7 result: Houston 41, Tennessee 7

Week 8 pick: Kansas City 23, San Diego 21
Week 8 result: Kansas City 23, San Diego 20

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