Likes and Dislikes: Ravens vs. Steelers

This was an eventful month of football.

It started with a road trip to Cleveland, where the Steelers looked like they could be a bottom-feeder in the AFC North, after the Browns gave the Black & Gold a royal beat down in their house. Losing in that fashion, to a team the Steelers regularly dominated, had many fans fearing for the worse: a failed rebuilding effort that would require more rebuilding… and more losing. After all, the future didn’t look so great after a home loss to Tampa Bay and a low-scoring, sneak-out-of-town win at Jacksonville.

Then the 2nd quarter of the Houston Texans game happened and the entire season turned upside down: in each of the last 3 2nd quarters, the Steelers have scored 24, 28 and 22 points.

I had previously mentioned last night’s match up against the Baltimore Ravens was in the “must win” category. The team needed to close the gap in a division where no team has a losing record. Payback was necessary, in their house. Payback was necessary on a night where possibly the greatest Pittsburgh Steeler, “Mean” Joe Greene, had his number retired.

The Steelers would not let him down, as another player looking to near the “greatest” moniker made even more history.

A week removed from a historic performance against the Indianapolis Colts, Ben Roethlisberger continued to play like a man possessed. On a day where the focus was on Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, Big Ben gave sportswriters around the world more reasons to add his name to the “best quarterback” conversation. As Tom Brady and the Patriots started lukewarm, the critics took notice of how Brady took the team on his back and is playing, arguably, the best football of his life.

But even Brady’s ungodly numbers pale in comparison to what Roethlisberger has accomplished over the last 2 games. Ben broke the record for touchdowns for consecutive games, with 12, a record in which Brady had tied with Tom Flores (11 touchdowns.)

Over the last 2 games, Ben is 65 of 89, for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns, compared with Brady’s 63 of 88 for 687 yards and 9 touchdowns. However, Ben has been mistake free, with no interceptions. In fact, Ben hasn’t thrown a pick since the aforementioned Cleveland debacle.

A large portion of Ben’s success has been spreading the ball around. Ben connected with 9 different receivers against the Colts and 8 against the Ravens. Those receivers include Martavis Bryant, the 4th round rookie who has 5 TD grabs over the last 3 games (the only games he has been active this year, due to a shoulder injury which keep him sidelined.)

Bryant stretches the field, and gets open in such a way teams cannot key in Antonio Brown, now the NFL’s leading receiver. And while Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount didn’t run wild against a stout Ravens run defense, the two backs are capable of catching passes and breaking free for big plays.

Not lost in this discussion are TE Heath Miller and complementary WRs Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Steelers have a variety of potential weapons which make it difficult for opposing teams to defend the pass, as evidenced by Ben’s 14 score flurry over 3 weeks. If you’re facing Pittsburgh, who do you defend?

And speaking of the devil, the Steelers defense is also playing solid. Despite numerous setbacks due to injury, multiple players have bought into the “next man up” mentality. NFL castoffs such as Brice McCain and Antwon Blake are becoming major contributors at time where a player thought to be a major contributor, Cortez Allen, is now riding the bench.

Jason Worilds has come alive. Lawrence Timmons hasn’t lost a step. Mike Mitchell is no longer missing gap assignments. And the rotating door of LBs next to Timmons, such as Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams, are all playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Then there’s the gorilla in the room: a silverback to be exact. LB James Harrison has 4 sacks in 2 games, with QB pressures in bunches. Never expected to play many snaps, Harrison is now in on almost every 2nd or 3rd down situation, and getting over half of the reps at his position. He looks like he is years younger and playing with a fire the Steelers haven’t seen in years.

But, then there’s the elephant in the room: special teams. The lone loser in the dislikes column from last night’s game, the special teams unit gave up poor field position on poor punt, botched an extra point attempt (which luckily turned into 2 points) and finally, for the love of God: when will the Steelers game plan for Jacoby Jones?

However, the team had poise throughout: the penalties were far and few between, and the Ravens looked much like the Steelers did in the first match up of these teams. This game was a statement, one where Pittsburgh was bent on making sure they not only won, but matched the 20 point differential in their loss to Baltimore earlier in the season. The team played with an edge, a mean streak, a back bone that had been absent at times throughout the 8-8 seasons of the last few years.

On a night honoring one of the greatest, this football club made not only “Mean” Joe, but all of Steeler Nation, proud to back the Black & Gold.

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