The NFL's best rivalry used to be Patriots-Colts, but that's changed in recent years. Now, whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens face off, football fans point their heads in that direction. Not only are these teams AFC North division mates (eternally bad news for the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns), but they're very similar in a lot of ways. Both teams have balanced offenses, though the Ravens' rushing attack is slightly more evolved and the Steelers have had the edge in the passing game. Each defense throws the 3-4 concept on its head, and each team has a great young coach — Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh are two of the best in the NFL already, and they'll be so for years to come.
So, how does this all shake out when the Steelers head to Baltimore for this Sunday afternoon battle? Let's take a look at the matchups.
Baltimore's offense vs. Pittsburgh's defense
Last year, the Ravens put a trundling but reasonably effective offense on display, led as it was by a group of possession receivers (Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, tight end Todd Heap) and a running back in Ray Rice who was the real engine behind the whole thing. Willis McGahee was Rice's touchdown vulture, and Joe Flacco kept his cannon arm under wraps to a large degree as Baltimore attack was more about play-to-play efficiency than explosive opportunities that forced defenses to react out of fear. It worked to a large extent — the Ravens ranked 12th in Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency metrics, and seventh in the passing game — but there was a distinct lack of diversity, and that hurt the Ravens once again where it really counted … in the playoffs. The Ravens had a 21-7 lead on the Steelers at halftime of the divisional round, but those three scores were on a run, a fumble return, and a 4-yard pass to Heap. When the Steelers opened it up in the second half, Baltimore had no answer.
The idea in 2011 is for the Ravens to speak Pittsburgh's language and beat them at their own game. We'll talk about the Steelers' cottage industry of speed receivers soon, but suffice to say that Maryland rookie receiver Torrey Smith and veteran speedster Lee Evans are on the roster now for a very specific set of purpose — to replace everyone but Boldin in the long run, to give Flacco downfield targets that will allow him to air it out, and to give John Harbaugh a truly balanced offense. Smith is still getting the hang of the NFL route tree and little things like catching the ball, but Evans could be the guy who puts them over the top. Acquired for a mid-round pick from Buffalo, Evans has been an underrated asset for years because the Bills' string of noodle-armed passers haven't been able to exploit Evans' speed and adeptness with certain routes. Flacco's touchdown pass to Evans in the preseason against the Washington Redskins, in which Evans burnt DeAngelo Hall with speed and positional knowledge, was the harbinger. With McGahee off to Denver, Rice is now the main man on the ground — it's up to the Ravens' line to establish gaps in Pittsburgh's front line — and that's never an easy prospect.
As always, the Steelers come into the season with a front seven that produces ridiculous effectiveness against the run and pass through Dick LeBeau's concepts of situational defense and positional confusion. Like Dom Capers and Rex Ryan, LeBeau is never so happy as when he's messing with your head. Lately, he's done less single-down-lineman and moving cow stuff simply because he's got the horses to run a 5-2 set on every down and still beat your brains in with it. Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley present an unsolvable quandary for opposing offensive tackles. Harrison is a brutally effective pass rusher with underrated pass-reading skills (think of the long interception in Super Bowl XLIII), while Woodley may be the best OLB in the league when it comes to dropping into the flat and seam in one of LeBeau's zone blitzes.
There's some legitimate concern about the age of the interior defense, but it's a tough group with a comprehensive knowledge of what LeBeau wants to do, and Lawrence Timmons is a young force at ILB. Each of these defenses has a wild-card player in the defensive backfield who can do just about anything, and the Steelers' version might be just a hair (ha!) more effective. LeBeau has said that he gives Troy Polamalu more of a green light to freelance based on what he sees than any player he's ever coached, and Polamalu has rewarded him with a career of superlative plays, inevitably mixed with a few mighty whiffs. The Steelers finished first overall in FO's defensive metrics, and there's a reason for that — there isn't anything they don't either do very very, or know how to mask.
Pittsburgh's offense vs. Baltimore's defense
Everyone wants to talk about the Steelers' history of smashmouth … but as Alice In Chains sang long ago, it ain't like that anymore. They'll still run the trap and the two-back mashup, but offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has continued the Ken Whisenhunt tradition of more multi-receiver sets, blocking concepts out of bunch formations, and many more schematic sets designed to spread out a defense. The Steelers ranked fifth last year in frequency of four-receiver formations, went single-back almost 70 percent of the time, and ran bunch/trips sets as often as any team in the league. One idea the Steelers have enjoyed since the Santonio Holmes days is to put Hines Ward and at least one tight end in a bunch to one side, and then have the speed receiver blow up single coverage to the other side. It worked for Holmes, and it's worked for the products of the team's recent factory of downfield targets — Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and 2011 preseason star Antonio Brown.
Of course, the epicenter of that offense is Ben Roethlisberger, the owner of a very unique skill set. We may have never seen a quarterback able to handle defensive pressure the way Roethlisberger does — he routinely makes huge clutch throws with defenders draped all over him, which adds to his importance to the team — the Steelers' offensive line has been a major problem for a number of years, and very few quarterbacks could get to three Super Bowls in a career with that kind of pass protection. Roethlisberger understands the offense, and he has the arm to make it go with all the fast kids. Running back Rashard Mendenhall is a productive if unspectacular power/speed back probably too well-known for one killer fumble in the last Super Bowl and a few very unfortunate tweets about Osama Bin Laden.
Against Baltimore's defense, Roethlisberger may not get his usual advantage against pass pressure, because the Ravens don't generate that much. In 2010, they finished 27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which is a pretty paltry level for a supposed championship defense. Still, there's a great deal of talent here, and a legitimate superstar on every tier of the defense. Tackle Haloti Ngata is a pure physical freak — no man that big should be as athletic as he is — and his pressure totals (5.5 sacks, 8 QB hits, 18 hurries) are astonishing for a man who gets double-teamed on the inside all the time. Endbacker Terrell Suggs led the team with 11.5 sacks, and he put up an astonishing 38 hurries as well. Problem is, the Ravens have no other consistent source of pressure. However, with Ngata, the seemingly immortal Ray Lewis, and a solid crew of thumpers in the front seven, running on the Ravens is about as easy as it's always been — which is to say, not at all.
If Lee Evans is the hoped-for difference-maker on offense, the Ravens would love to see first-round pick Jimmy Smith make a similar impact in the secondary. The young cornerback from Colorado has more talent that he knows what to do with, but inconsistencies on the field and some boneheadedness off the field (I was near the scouting combine podium when Smith compared his ball skills to Nnamdi Asomugha's, and I swear about five of us dropped our notebooks), but he's in a perfect position to figure it out. With the veteran leadership of Ngata, Suggs, Lewis, and super-safety Ed Reed, Smith will have nobody but himself to blame if he can't adapt to new expectations.
Prediction: To quote Mr. T: "Prediction? Pain!" This rivalry always manages to put up superior games, and this should be no exception. The Steelers will have to redefine their coverage concepts with Evans as a new factor, but their great run defense should be able to handle Rice. For the Steelers, it's business as usual on both sides of the ball — show you enemy one thing, and do another very well. This year, I think the Ravens are set up to match wits and fists with the Steelers in the postseason, but Pittsburgh's continuity may give them a slight edge, even on the road. I love the addition of Evans to the Ravens' offense, but the Steelers may still have just one more big play in them.
I have the Steelers taking the first of these 2011 matchups, 23-20. They'll all be close, and I just hope there is a third game between them in the playoffs again.