Saturday, December 01, 2012

A Statement Game, One Way or the Other

We've only just begun to fight.
The hobbled Steelers prepare to limp into MT Stadium on Sunday to face a cocky Baltimore Ravens squad confident they will clinch the AFC North Division title and, in the process, bury the Steelers, once and for all, emphatically.

No doubt, the Ravens would love to make this a statement game, with that statement being that the torch has passed, that the Baltimore Ravens own the AFC North. Just like they did last year, with wins in both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and the Baltimoreans would love to assert that this is the way it's going to be for a while. The Ravens rang up 55 points on Oakland a few weeks ago. Obviously, they'd love to do the same, and worse, to the Steelers on Sunday in Baltimore.

Not so fast. Granted, on the surface, the Steelers are ripe for the picking. The patchwork offensive line is in disarray. The receivers and running backs are hobbled, although you won't hear that from coach Mike Tomlin. When asked this week about Chris Rainey's cracked ribs and apparent ankle/knee injury at the end of the loss in Cleveland, Tomlin said, abruptly and dismissively,"He was seeking comfort."  That's the same Chris Rainey who's been saying, basically, that he knows what the NFL is all about because he played in the SEC. Well. Think again.

Welcome to the NFL, Chris Rainey.  

After all, according to Tomlin, "Excuses are the tools of the incompetent," and the Steelers should have no excuses. And, really, they don't.

Time to go old-school.
There are no excuses for losses to losses to horrendous teams in Oakland, Tennessee and Cleveland.  Even in wins, the Steelers struggled and squeaked by with close victories over bad teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chefs. They looked deceptively good against a lousy Jets team in disarray; against a Redskins team that dropped 11 passes; and against a Giants team shaken and ill-prepared in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Steelers played the Ravens tough at Heinz Field on Nov. 18, but Jacoby Jones's punt return for a touchdown killed them, and Byron Leftwich played hurt and woefully bad.

The defense played well, however, and has been very good in recent weeks. Several players have stepped up their game, including Keenan Lewis, Will Allen, Steve McClendon and even, just this past Sunday, Jason Worilds.  Others have played to their traditional standard of excellence: Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, and, of course, Ryan Clark (the defensive MVP).

In any case, against Baltimore, the defense absolutely must get takeaways; the unit simply hasn't  much of that for the past two seasons. On the other side of the ball, it's worth noting, the Ravens haven't turned the ball over much this year (just nine times).

Lots of "ifs" for the Steelers this weekend.  If the Steelers win this game, it will definitely announce to the league they're not done yet. And, yes, this is the sort of game, historically, the Steelers find the wherewithal to win. The proud Steelers, the tough Steelers, the resourceful, determined and plucky Steelers, the Steelers who won't back down from anybody or any challenge. This will be a defining game.  One way or the other. No excuses.

Links 'n at
  • Make sure to check out Steel Reign and the other fine writers at Pittsburgh Sports Forum. Good stuff on the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins and other fun goings-on.
  • As always, Nice Pick Cowher offers lots of trenchant, interesting observations on the state of the Steelers.
  • Over at Behind the Steel Curtain, Neal Coolong presents a typically cogent analysis, including a look at Baltimore's edge on special teams.
  • Dave Bryan at Steelers Depot details one of the key match-ups, which is the seeming mismatch between the Ravens' Paul Kruger (and, at times, Terrell Suggs) vs. Pittsburgh's new right tackle, Kelvin Beachum, the rookie out of SMU, who was the fourth of the Steelers' four seventh-round draft picks this year.

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