Game of the Week: Ravens-Steelers
The Steelers have a legit shot to challenge Baltimore's record. Defensively, they're firing on all cylinders right now, and they've surrendered just 11.0 ppg, against three pretty good teams (Atlanta, Tennessee and Tampa).
The remaining schedule is filled with a long list of offensive lightweights, too. First and foremost, there are six divisional games, starting Sunday, against Baltimore (which currently scores 14.7 ppg), Cincinnati (19.7 ppg) and Cleveland (15.0 ppg). Not one of those teams fields an offense that scares anybody, let alone frightens a great defense.
Then there are still games against the Dolphins (17.3 ppg), Raiders (17.3), Bills (15.7) and Panthers (10.7, dead last in the NFL). That's 10 of 13 remaining games against offenses that will struggle to move the ball and score against the Steelers.
Blend a great unit like Pittsburgh's defense with some favorable forces like scheduling and you get the recipe to make a run at the record books. Hey, the mighty 2000 Ravens benefited from favorable scheduling, too: they played four games that year against two of the worst offenses in modern times. The division-rival Bengals and Browns each failed to score even 190 points that year. They were shut out twice, and totaled just 14 points, in four games against Baltimore.
Their ground game proved its mettle in the playoffs against the Patriots:
But that explosive ground game was contained the following week in a 20-3 playoff loss at Indy (19 attempts, 87 yards). It's yet to regain its powerful form.
The 2010 Ravens average a humble 3.14 yards per attempt on the ground (29th), they've totaled 267 yards (23rd) and they have scored just one rushing TD. Third-year back Rice has been largely bottled up (52 attempts, 210 yards, 4.0 YPA, 0 TD).
It's a performance that does not inspire hope against a Steelers defense that has surrendered a miniscule 2.63 YPA on the ground this year. Add in the fact that Flacco has failed, at least so far, to regain his 2009 form, and it spells a very long day for the Baltimore offense.
These are stats that have a direct correlation to winning football games. We don't look at stats that wow the fantasy crowd. We look only at those stats that mean the difference between victory and defeat on Sunday.
Pittsburgh is No. 1 in Bendability, our measure of team-wide defensive efficiency. Essentially, it's an effort to quantify the phenomenon of the bend-but-don't-break defense. It tells us how many yards opposing teams must generate to score a single point. And so far this year, Pittsburgh's opponents have needed to rip off a daunting 25.3 Yards Per Point Scored. That's tough. That's real tough.
To put that figure in scoreboard terms: Pittsburgh's opponents need to crisscross the field the equivalent of nearly twice (177.1 yards) just to score a touchdown and extra point.
So the Steelers are not only tough on defense, they're frustratingly efficient on defense, too. (For some perspective, Oakland is No. 32 in Bendability. Its opponents need just 72.0 yards to score the equivalent of a touchdown and extra point.)
So the DHI is an incredible indicator of postseason success, and the early No. 1 ranking bodes well for the Steelers.
Finally, Pittsburgh is No. 5 in Defensive Passer Rating, the most important stat to look at if you want to know about a team's ability to shut down opposing passers (do not look at yards allowed; means nothing). The Steelers boast a 68.1 Defensive Passer Rating (put another way: opposing quarterbacks have managed a combined 68.1 passer rating).
Most importantly, Pittsburgh's TD-INT ratio is an impressive 1-to-5. They've allowed just one TD through the air this year, while hauling in five picks -- almost always a game-changing play.
Baltimore is No. 7 in Defensive Passer Rating (71.98). But, remarkably for a team so high, has yet to intercept a pass.
Pittsburgh is not only winning in impressive fashion without quarterback
Essentially, we measure how each team does against what we call Quality Opponents (teams that currently have a winning record).
The Steelers are 3-0, as you know. But more importantly, they're 3-0 against three teams that have not lost to anybody else. Pittsburgh victims Atlanta, Tennessee and Tampa are 6-0 against teams not named the Steelers. That's a pretty remarkable little stretch of success and an extraordinarily rare occurrence at this point in the season.
It's quite likely that the Falcons, Titans and Buccaneers will all have winning records at the end of the year, meaning all three will still qualify as Quality Opponents for Pittsburgh by the end of the season.
Three Quality Wins is a pretty good total over the course of any season, because history has proven to us that it's extraordinarily difficult, even for very good clubs, to consistently beat Quality Opponents. Both the 2005 and 2008 Super Bowl champion Steelers, for example, went just 4-4 against Quality Teams.
Last year's Super Bowl contenders, the Saints and Colts, each boasted five Quality Wins during the regular season. The record is seven Quality Wins in one season.
The Ravens and Steelers pride themselves on a similar style of football: both value the ground game and boast an institutional pride in their great defenses of the past and even of today. But the Steelers usually do both a little bit better.
And Pittsburgh appears to be doing both quite a bit better this year. In fact, in the eyes of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, the Steelers are easily the best team in football right through three weeks. Expect the Steelers to make life extraordinarily difficult for the Ravens and then expect them to welcome Roethlisberger back with a sparkling 4-0 record. Watch out, NFL!