8:25 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: Baltimore -2.5
Lost in a swirling maelstrom of controversy regarding the NFl’s policy on Domestic Violence and Ray Rice’s subsequent termination, there is a football game being played tonight featuring bitter rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers and ironically the Baltimore Ravens. It’s hard to imagine any team in the league needing a victory, or just some positive press, more so than the Ravens (0-1) at this point, who have been lost in the eye of this proverbial storm over the past week. Despite all of off-the-field drama, the elephant in the room remains quite evident for this team; after dropping their home opener to Cincinnati, Baltimore faces the reality of losing each of their first two games at home, and therefore falling behind in what is sure to be a competitive division by a pair of games.
After hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in 2012, Baltimore underwhelmed considerably last season, going 8-8 with stagnant offense. John Harbaugh reacted by putting together one of the most expensive coaching staffs in the league; former Texans’ skipper Gary Kubiak was hired as Offensive Coordinator, while former Rams’ boss Steve Spagnuolo was acquired to coach the Defensive Line. So with a pair of highly respected football minds on the sideline fine-tuning the offense and the defense, what could go wrong? Well, as Week One’s 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Bengals proved, this team still has a long ways to go, particularly on offense. Joe Flacco and the offense looked out of sync as they were shut out in the first half, as the running game was inept. A sense of urgency led towards taking a brief lead in the second half, but a late A.J. Green touchdown effectively ended the contest, as the visitors earned their first victory at M&T Bank Stadium since 2009. On the day, Flacco attempted a ridiculous 62 passes, completing 35 for 345 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Offseason acquisition Steve Smith had a solid debut, hauling in seven passes for 118 yards including an 80-yard score.
However, it was the running game, which was a glaring weakness last season, that hamstrung the offense last Sunday. At first glance, Baltimore’s performance in that phase of the game looked respectable; they rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, but only managed a scant 23 yards on nine attempts in the first half, with the majority of their production coming in the second with the Bengals’ putting an emphasis on defending the pass. Bernard Pierce struggled early, and after fumbling in the Second Quarter, didn’t see the field again. Veteran journeyman Justin Forsett was a pleasant surprise, with 70 yards and a score on just eleven carries, and given Rice’s termination, has probably earned the starting job. Remember, Harbaugh’s club ranked 30th in the league in rushing last season (83.0) and dead-last in yards per carry (3.1), a steep decline from a unit that ranked eleventh (118.8) and twelfth (4.3) on their way towards Super Bowl XLVII. In fact, Harbaugh hasn’t had a unit that ranked below 14th in rushing offense since he took over back in 2008. Many pundits point the finger at the coach’s insistence of instituting a zone-blocking scheme, which the Offensive Line struggled considerably to adapt to. That’s why the addition of Kubiak was so significant; the zone-blocking guru has crafted top tier rushing attacks in both Denver and Houston, oftentimes leading to effective play-action attacks. A better ground game should lead to a better Flacco who is also trying to rebound from a disappointing season in which he threw more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19).
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0) too are looking to wash away the stain of a disappointing campaign, as Mike Tomlin and Co. attempt to march towards to the postseason for the first time since 2011. Waitaminute, 2011 you say? Indeed, it’s been an uncharacteristic time for folks in Steel City of late; a modicum of consistency, the Steelers have only missed the Playoffs in consecutive seasons on four occasions since 1972. Ironically, many of their issues last season reflected those of their opponent tonight, for their own poor rushing attack led to a largely one-dimensional offense that struggled to sustain drives. As in the case with Flacco, a better running game will lead to a better Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers made a number of moves in the offseason to ensure just that. LeGarrette Blount was acquired to team with emerging tailback Le’Veon Bell to give the rushing attack the teeth it’s lacked over the past several seasons. Blount rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns on a career-best 5.0 yards per carry last year with New England, while Bell racked up 1,259 total yards of offense as a rookie in 2013. The question remains; now that they have these new weapons at their disposal, will they (we’re looking at you Todd Haley) utilize them?
Early returns on that quandary appear positive. In Sunday’s 30-27 victory over Cleveland in the Opener, the Steelers carried the ball 28 times for a healthy 127 yards and a pair of scores, with Bell playing a integral role in the offense. The sophomore toted the rock 21 times for 109 yards and a touchdown, but also flashed his versatility with another 88 yards on six receptions. With better balance, Roethlisberger had himself a day, completing 23-of-34 passes for 365 yards (275 of which came in the first half) a touchdown and an interception. Antonio Brown was the recipient of five passes for 116 yards and a score of his own, while second-year receiver Markus Wheaton posted 97 yards on six catches. Haley’s uptempo offense churned out a robust 490 yards on the day, and even though Big Ben was sacked four times (and knocked down many more), the unit looked threatening throughout the contest. That was particularly the case early, as the offense scored on four of it’s first five drives of the game en route to establishing a 27-3 lead at halftime. However, what appeared to be a walk in the park would evolve into a dogfight over the following thirty minutes.
Perhaps it was just a case of simply letting their collective foot off the gas pedal, or maybe it was just a young defense experiencing growing pains, but Pittsburgh’s near collapse in the second half should be cause for concern for Tomlin. Brown’s Quarterback Brian Hoyer torched his defense, opening the second half with four consecutive scoring drives, erasing the 24-point deficit in just over sixteen minutes of time. Without Josh Gordon (suspended), Ben Tate (exited in the second quarter) and Jordan Cameron (left the game with a shoulder injury), the unheralded Hoyer caught fire leading an uptempo attack that the hosts seemed ill-prepared for; the Browns racked up a total of 389 yards, with Hoyer going 19-of-31 for 230 yards and a touchdown. More distressing was the Steelers’ inability to stop the run, which has been the defense’s calling card since well, forever; the visitors gashed them for 183 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, with Terrence West (16 carries, 100 yards) and Isaiah Crowell (5 carries, 32 yards, 2 TD) running wild throughout the second half. Thankfully, Roethlisberger led a 5-play, 35-yard drive that culminated in a 41-yard Shaun Suisham Field Goal to end the game, ending the Browns rally and easing a lot of nerves in the process.