Breaking down Monday night's Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers game (8:30 p.m., ESPN) ...
1. Roethlisberger and Flacco: Two guys who'll be hitting the ice bath extra hard on Tuesday. Honestly, which quarterback would you rather be during Monday's imminent bloodfest? It ain't going to be pretty for either one.
Ben Roethlisberger has more experience, for sure. Experience enough to know what's coming. Over his career he's been sacked once every 9.5 times he throws the ball. But against the division rival Ravens he's getting planted once every 7.5 times. And we're not talking patty-cake love taps. It was 22 months ago today that Bart Scott blew untouched up the Steelers' right side and absolutely obliterated Roethlisberger, driving him shoulder blades-first into the M&T Bank Stadium turf. That sack, which was the third of nine -- a Ravens record -- on the day, came out of one of the Steelers' spread sets (three wideouts bunched left) that they still use today, and the sack was made possible when Willie Parker blew his assignment. Parker took one step inside and then completely whiffed on Scott, who had looped around the end on the snap.
Why is that relevant? Because Parker, who's an average blocker, will be watching from the sidelines this week while a rookie, Rashard Mendenhall, takes his place. That would be the same rookie who has yet to master the art of holding onto the ball. Now we'll see how well he grasps pass protection.
Here's something else to keep in mind. The Ravens have sacked Roethlisberger 21 times in three years, and that was against a better line than Pittsburgh will start on Sunday. Earlier this year I hypothesized that this unit had turned a corner. Apparently not.
Against Philadelphia last week, the Steelers front five struggled mightily. In one particular two-drive stretch in the second quarter they looked particularly inept, allowing four sacks over seven plays. In the same two series, Roethlisberger fumbled once; the line was charged with a false start; and another sack was negated by penalty while the Eagles sent a mixture of three-, four- and six-man rushes, always disguised.
And every time it got worse the Steelers responded with a wide open set, hoping and praying to get just one ball down field to knock the Eagles back on their heels. On first-and-15 on his own 24, Roethlisberger finally launched one deep ball in the face of intense pressure. It was picked off, of course.
When the dust settled on that quarter, CBS announcer Phil Simms quipped, "When it's good, you keep going to it," referring to the Eagles' relentless blitzing. Expect that to be a credo for Baltimore on Monday.
So, back to the original question. You think Joe Flacco will have it easier? Maybe you heard the rookie this week say, "It's football. It's Monday night. It should be a lot of fun." Awkward silence.
This is the same Joe Flacco who tossed two awful interceptions in the face of a -- ahem -- vicious Cleveland pass rush last week. Few defenses get to the quarterback the way the Steelers do this year. (They have 10 sacks.) And just as few intercept the ball as frequently. (Twice a game so far.) So pick your poison: Flacco or Roethlisberger?
2. Speaking of hating life: Welcome to the NFL, Rashard Mendenhall. What a way to test a back's mettle. Here are some numbers that Mendenhall might want to know.
• One: that's how many rushing touchdowns the Steelers have against Baltimore in the past six meetings. It's also the number of times Pittsburgh has rushed for over 100 yards as a team in that span. (101 yards in '05.)
• 2.6: the number of rushing yards per carry Parker has averaged in this series.
• 46: the number of rushing yards Pittsburgh put up the one time Parker had to sit out, last December.
Honestly, we don't know a thing about Mendenhall as a pro yet. We will by Tuesday morning. And that will have played a huge role in the outcome here.
3. Pittsburgh absolutely cannot play conservative ball and expect to win. I'll let one of our anonymous NFL coaches take the lead on this one. He says:
"You have to generate big plays, explosive plays against [the Ravens] because they are a very hard team to march 12-play drives on consistently. You have to build into your plan the explosive play that will get you that quick score... You have to be ready and able to hit the big play when you have the opportunity."
In other words, scrap the game plan that worked so well against Houston in Week 1, Mike Tomlin. In that contest, Pittsburgh relied on turnovers and strong field position ceded by an inexperienced offense. When that happened, the Steelers comfortably plodded down the field, eating up clock while the Texans defense rolled over.
Tomlin should have some of the same opportunities here -- I expect at least three turnovers from Flacco -- but Tomlin won't have the luxury of patience once the Steelers have the ball. In fact, Baltimore has been so dominant on defense that opponents have averaged just under 23 minutes of possession per game.
So, time is of the essence, but Roethlisberger has been a slug this season. Thus far he's thrown the ball in the 21 to 30-yard range just thrice (one completion), once in the 31-40 range (incomplete) and twice in the 41-plus range (one completion). By comparison, the notably noodle-armed Chad Pennington has gone deep (over 20 yards) just as often as Roethlisberger.
Big Ben has to aim bigger and strike faster this week because Baltimore poses the rare defense that makes a coach think, "The longer I leave my offense on the field, the more chances we have to turn the ball over -- and then what? How comfortable am I with my quarterback's tackling skills?"
Every week, we ask at least one NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what one assistant from a 2007 Ravens opponent had to say about game-planning this year's top overall defense:
"The big thing is they have a veteran defensive football team. When you have a veteran team that's been together for a while, knowing the scheme, you can create more things for the offense to contend with. They have great playmakers. But having been together for five or six years, their continuity helps make them really good.
"Given the right situation, it can help to speed up the pace -- especially if you get them early in the year or down South. You can keep them from making so many adjustments. But you have to have a veteran offense to do that, too."
ANALYSIS: When it comes to Pittsburgh, I just don't see the later strategy working. For one, their offensive line hardly qualifies as a veteran unit. Facing an equally aggressive defense, Philadelphia, last week, Roethlisberger tried to get the upper hand with quick snap counts and by moving his receivers around at the line of scrimmage. That chaos seemed to backfire and it did nothing to stop the bleeding.
I think Ravens coach John Harbaugh had to like what he saw in Willis McGahee against Cleveland last week, and he'll make sure McGahee suits up for this one, even if it means putting a pirate patch over his gouged eyeball. I think Harbaugh, who has to be skeptical of Flacco in this game, keeps the ball in McGahee's hands. And I think Tomlin does the opposite: he abandons the rookie runner and hopes Roethlisberger can carry 'em out of this one. I think the latter approach leads to more turnovers and Baltimore takes it 24-13.