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Pregame stretch:
Steelers vs. Ravens

November 27, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-6) vs. Baltimore Ravens (5-6)
Thursday, 8:30 p.m. EST, NBC

Announcers: Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth
Annoyance factor: Not applicable. These are the two best guys working right now at their respective positions. If you’re annoyed by this broadcast, it’s likely because the Steelers are getting clocked. Also, Michele Tafoya might be involved in this game, but until the networks start asking their sideline reporters to report and not just conduct lame, uninformative standups with the head coaches, she’s an afterthought.
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Weather – or not?: Crystal clear, 4 mph winds, 0 percent chance of precipitation, low 30s. A sunny, windy day should dry the field and lead to perfect football conditions.
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Referee: Clete Blakeman
Competence factor: Solid. Blakeman’s crew is one of the better in the league and usually quite restrained in throwing flags. The last time that we saw Blakeman was in London for the Vikings debacle so he might not recognize the Steelers team he sees on Thursday.
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How they rank
Baltimore offense: 19th passing, 27th rushing
Pittsburgh defense: 10th passing, 23th rushing
Pittsburgh offense: 30th rushing, 8th passing
Baltimore defense: 11th rushing, 11th passing
Of note: As Pittsburgh’s pass defense has gotten worse in recent weeks, is run defense has gotten proportionally better.

The line: Baltimore -3
Smarts say: This is a straight-up homefield advantage line. A 1-4 Steelers team was favored by 1.5 in the two teams’ earlier matchup, by the way. The over/under of 40.5 means something in the neighborhood of Ravens 21-17.
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Key matchup:
Steelers red zone offense vs. Ravens red zone defense
Because: Absent something crazy like five turnovers, this game will be won in the red zone, where the Ravens offense is 20th in conversion efficiency and the Steelers offense is 31st, as in next to last. The Steelers must have more TDs than FGs in the red zone here to keep their win streak alive. And really, it’s one of the last parts of their game (along with pass defense) that they’ve got to shore up if they’re going to truly contend in the weak AFC. Pittsburgh’s red zone troubles so far have been equal parts can’t run, dropped passes and odd playcalling (with numbers 1 and 3 definitely being connected). If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know our theory on red zone woes: Score before you get there! So if the Steelers put a couple of 40-something yard TDs on the board that counts for winning this battle. Short of that, Pittsburgh needs more decisiveness from Le’Veon Bell, something he started to show in Cleveland; sure hands from its receivers down close (isn’t Miller overdue?); and a creative playcall or two, something breaking tendency off a WR screen or maybe even our favorite red zone gadget, a halfback pass.

Long snap
Back before the Raiders game, we set forth a “plan” describing how the “not good enough” Steelers could still contend for the playoffs in 2013.
That simple plan went like this: Have the top players (Roethlisberger, Brown, Miller, Woodley, Polamalu) elevate their level of play to their once-elite form and get vastly improved play from a core of young players (DeCastro, Heyward, Allen) who still have potential.
Now, when we laid that plan out we never in a million years thought Pittsburgh could actually execute it, but it’s pretty much what we’ve seen happen over the past three weeks.
First and foremost, Roethlisberger has re-established his level of play to that “Top 5” echelon we came to expect. Most impressively, he’s made an equal number of plays from the pocket as he has on the run in the past three games. After Brady, Manning and Brees, who would you rather have playing QB for you now?
Antonio Brown has just gone nuts over the past month. There’s no other way to describe it. After torching Joe Haden last week, Brown’s confidence has to be sky high. If he averages six catches per game in the final five games, he’ll just miss Hines Ward’s single-season reception record.
Heath Miller is still not the stud we remember, but his knee and his confidence appear to be getting better each week and the fact that his best football this year might lay ahead of him could be as big a factor as any in a Pittsburgh playoff push.
While it was only for a game, Troy Polamalu’s defensive gem in Cleveland will certainly get the attention of offensive coordinators (and quarterbacks) around the league, most notably the two he faces next: Baltimore’s Jim Caldwell and Joe Flacco. Polamalu’s rise might be tied to a growing level of comfort with Pittsburgh’s “quarters package” where he functions almost like an inside linebacker.
Woodley, of course, has been injured for much of the last month, and Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau face a real dilemma when he’s ready to return, based on the way Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones have been playing in his absence, and the defensive turnovers and wins that have followed.
On top of the improved play from those top-line veterans, Pittsburgh has gotten surprising support from William Gay and Worilds, two guys we personally did not think had that in them, as well as Fernando Velasco, who might be the team’s MVP for not just replacing Maurkice Pouncey, but playing at or above Pouncey’s level, and now from Will Allen, who was let go in the offseason, then signed and cut by Dallas before winding up back in Pittsburgh to help the Steelers’ resurgence.
Of the young players, DeCastro and Heyward’s emergence has been most notable. Based on what we saw of Jarvis Jones in the preseason and the pedigree he brings, you have to think there’s a chance he could turn up his level of play considerably over the last quarter of the season.
Put it all together and you’ve got nine or 10 guys playing at dramatically higher levels than they were just a month or so ago. That’s almost unheard of in the NFL and that’s how you go from the self-admitted “worst team in the NFL” to a rising playoff contender.

Quick hits:
+ Don’t forget the last time these two teams met Emmanuel Sanders missed a 107-yard kickoff return by a fraction of an inch. A big return by Sanders of Antonio Brown on a punt could tilt this one. This probably isn’t the right time to mention that Pittsburgh’s special team coverage has been really stellar of late and Jacoby Jones is getting healthy for Baltimore after struggling with a sprained knee for several months.
+ You might have read that the Ravens ran some Wildcat offense last week against the Jets, something that (allegedly) didn’t sit too well with Joe Flacco (just like it didn’t sit too well with Ben Roethsliberger when the Steelers did it earlier this year against the Ravens). We wonder how much of that was real strategy and how much was showing something that will eat up some of Pittsburgh’s invaluable prep time in a short week. Also, after watching Flacco’s interview on tape, we’re not convinced it’s not a work (he goes out of his way to note he has no responsibility when he splits out in the Wildcat) to set up a pass to Flacco out of the formation. (Blogger’s note: This is soooooo much more fun that trying to figure out who the Steelers are going to take with the sixth pick, which is what we were doing before the last Ravens game).

The pick: There’s no margin for error here for the Ravens, who already have fallen to Pittsburgh once. A second loss, leaving them essentially two games behind the Steelers with four to play, would be fatal. The Steelers, meanwhile, aren’t dead with a loss, but would likely need to win out to get in at 9-7 and that looks like it would mean not only beating the Bengals but also the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers. It’s been well documented how close the series has been between these two teams over the past five years, so picking this one shouldn’t be that hard.... Ravens 19-16.
Last week: In case you haven’t noticed, this blog is controlling the Steelers fate. Each week, we lay out a plan showing how Pittsburgh “could” win then pick against them. And each week, they execute that plan and do win. So we’re sacrificing our ego on these picks for the good of the team. You’re welcome, Mike Tomlin. Last week’s double loss leaves us 4-7 straight up and 5-6 against the spread.

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