Stillers @ Ravens Preview (Game #13)
The AFC-leading 10-2 Pittsburgh Stillers travel down to Baltimore this Sunday for a battle of epic proportions against the defending Super Bowl champs. The winner here not only moves closer toward securing a first-round bye, but perhaps more importantly, earns the respect, pride, and confidence associated with winning this kind of late-season game. This game will be on ESPN, so there's no reason whatsoever -- short of, say, running down Osama bin Laden if you should happen to see him -- to miss this game. Strap on your helmet tightly, get your best Stiller jersey out, and get ready for a hard-hitting game chock full of emotion and fury.
* When the Ravens have the ball, they'll line up with a much adjusted offense from the one they'd hope to use when training camp began. Star RB Jamaal Lewis was lost for the season back in the summer, and his replacement, Jason Brookins, was shelved for the season a couple weeks ago. This leaves the formerly ground-oriented Ravens with the likes of Terry Allen and Moe Williams to lug the ball, which is kind of like choosing between Rosanne Barr and Madeline Albright as a potential prom date. Neither Allen nor Williams is powerful nor rugged enough to carry the load for 20-plus carries a game against a stout defense. The Ravens rushing game, in fact, is at #17 in the NFL. Their passing offense is fairly capable, however. All-world TE Shannon Sharpe still makes plays all over the field, and is quite capable at holding defenders without getting caught. Stiller-killer Quadry Ismail mans one WR spot, with Travis Taylor working the other. Ismail has pieced together a very fine season, and might eclipse the 1,000 yard mark with a solid effort on Sunday. Brandon Stokley gives the Ravens some decent production from the #3 WR spot. The Ravens O-line is a decent one, though hardly dominant. All-world Jonathan Ogden mans the LT, but the remainder of Mulitalo, Flynn, Anderson and Vickers are hardly worldbeaters. One thing that has ravaged the Ravens this year has been turnovers. They rank 30th in the NFL with 12 fumbles lost, and their 17 INT's thrown hasn't helped them too much, either. As opposed to facing Cunningham, which we did in the last meeting, the Stillers will see Elvis Grcoc at QB. Grcoc has had an up and down season, faltering badly in some losses and then making big plays to lead the Ravens in a couple of wins. The key matchup is the Stiller defense against the Raven passing game. I don't expect the Ravens to get much production at all on the ground. The Stiller front 7 is too good, while the Ratbird rushing attack is too weak. If Baltimore is going to move the ball, it'll have to be through the air with their 10th ranked passing offense. Grbac is capable of hitting some big plays, and he's got good pass-catching targets in Allen, Sharpe, Ismail, Taylor, and Stokley. The Stiller blitzburgh defense has got to break out from this passive funk that coordinator Tim Lewis has lulled them into the past 4 weeks, and the secondary has to clamp down on this group of receivers and Sharpe. If Baltimore can move the ball well in the air without the support of a good ground game, that could very well be the difference in the ballgame.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they presumably will not have The Bus back in action. Bettis has been downgraded to "doubtful", and with that, it's unlikely that he'll even suit up for the game. Not to worry, however. The duo of Chris Fu and Amoz Zereoue is capable of giving the Stillers good enough production on the ground to keep the Raven defense honest. Not only that, but both backs -- especially Amoz -- give the Stillers better versatility to pass the ball to the backs on "non-passing" downs. And let's not forget that Bettis has hardly dominated the Ravens in the last several meetings. It's not like The Bus has been rushing for 125 yards every time we've faced the Ravens. And the Ravens have some injury worries on their side of the ball, too. DT Sam Adams (knee) and DE Rob Burnett (calf, hand) are hobbled and listed as questionable. But Bettis or no Bettis, the key matchup will be the Stiller passing game against the #16 ranked Raven pass defense. The Ravens front 7 is stout, fast, and dominant, and whether Bettis plays at RB, or Marshall Faulk or Curtis Martin, you must beat the Ravens through the air if you want to win the ballgame. In the last meeting versus the Ravens, the Stillers offense dominated the Raven defense, only to continually come up short in the red zone. Once in the red zone, you're facing a shortened field and the Ravens are highly unlikely to let you plunge up the gut or dink 3-yard passes for a score from the 17-yard line. The glaring weakness of this Raven defense is its secondary. Little Duane Starks is no match for Burress, and neither Starks nor McAllister is capable of adequately covering en fuego Hines Ward throughout the day. And neither safety -- Harris or Woodson -- is a fast cover-man. The Stiller passing game has truly gelled these past few weeks, and with Edwards and Shaw contributing a good bit off the bench, this foursome is rapidly resembling the quartet from the '95 season. Burress dominated the Ravens in the first meeting, only to be frozen out -- by his own offense, not the Ratbird defense -- in the 2nd half. Shaw had a couple of huge catches last week, and averaged a modest 21 YPC in the process. Edwards has looked much more confident catching the ball -- a byproduct, in my opinion, of his touching the ball much more in the punt return/kick return chores. Put all this together, and it becomes clear that the Stiller passing game will have to come through if we are to beat the Ravens. And, lest I forget, the Ravens, because of their speed and prowess at LB, are far too savvy for Stewart's QB draws, the screen pass, and the RB-draw play to get much yardage. Mularkey has become pretty fond of the QB draw (particularly on 3rd down, when the entire opposing defense is looking for it), and the screen pass has long been a Cowher favorite. While these plays can be run, they should be run to the least extent possible. Let Stewart continue to do the fine job he's done throwing the ball, because we know full well that his receivers will, without question, be open most of the day. And Stewart has shown that he's more than capable of "improvision" (Cowher's term, not mine) by scrambling when the coverage is tight and the protection breaks down. Of course, I'd still like to see Stewart put on the move from time to time with boots and rolls.
* Spec Teams: The Ravens have pretty solid spec teams. Jermaine Lewis is always a huge threat in the return game, and, facing the lowly Stiller coverage teams, Lewis must be frothing rabidly. Kicker Matt Stover has put together a very good season, as has punter Kyle Richardson. Stover doesn't have a huge leg, but inside 40 yards, he's pretty deadly. The Stillers have received some recent boosts from Troy Edwards and Bobby Shaw in the return games, and hopefully they can help in getting some decent field position in a game that could easily be determined by field position. Because of the obvious difficulties in scoring against the Ravens, Kris Brown, like it or not, will be called upon at least 3 times to kick important FGs. Kris missed 3 FGs (not 4, as every major media outlet insists on saying) in the last tussle against the Ravens, plus another FG was blocked. Kris looked a bit shaky in last week's game against NY, so he'll need to snap out of his funk and bear down the way he was kicking prior to our 1st Ravens game.
* Synopsis: The Ratbirds supposedly are full of fire and brimstone over Bettis's comparison of Takeo Spikes and Ray Lewis. Frankly, this is rather sophomoric of Lewis and the Ravens. If the defending Super Bowl champs need to use this kind of cheesy false-motivation to get fired up to play the #1 team in their division and in the entire conference, then the Ravens have bigger problems than even the ones at running back. Going into the last meeting, I was worried that the Stillers might not be able to play physically enough against the Ravens. My worries were unfounded. The Stillers physically dominated both sides of the ball, and they dominated the game, too. Emerging from that miserable loss, the Stillers have had thoughts from that game sticking in their craw for the past 6 weeks. Rest assured, there's not a man on the Stiller roster who hasn't been looking forward to this game this weekend. This Stiller team is focused, energetic, confident, and playing their best football since 1997. Bettis or no Bettis, the Stillers will resoundingly thump the PoeBirds, 23-10.