Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Coaches Alike Key in Steelers Surge, Beating Ravens


"It's not how you drive, it's how you arrive." Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones

The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. The coaches knew that. They even tried to tell us that. The typical fan, though, lives very much in the now. So much so that Steelers fans have called for more heads than the Queen of Hearts.

After an ignominious start to the season - 11 turnovers, zero forced turnovers and 15 sacks allowed in four losses - the Steelers are actually looking like a team to be reckoned with down the stretch. Somewhat sparked by a recent loss, all of the above numbers have been turned in their favor.

The coaches and coordinators had taken a lot of abuse during that period, even having much-loved defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's job being questioned. If It Ain't Steel even suggested as much. But it was based on the team's direction at the time - a direction that has been navigated back to a winning one.

One thing that was made clear, however, was that the players needed to execute. During the recent win streak, players on both sides of the ball are doing just that.

First four weeks:
11 offensive turnovers
15 sacks allowed
0 defensive forced turnovers
4 defensive sacks
17.25 points per game


Last three weeks:
1 offensive turnover
5 sacks allowed
8 defensive forced turnovers
10 defensive sacks
29 points per game


In the previous three weeks, Big Ben has only been sacked five times, while not getting dirty once last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns top 10 defense. It a unified effort between coaching, players finally getting comfortable and Big Ben's presence in the no-huddle.

"When you have different people you are plugging in that haven't been exposed to [the no-huddle] quite as much as some of the others, that causes you some speed bumps....I think that is why you are seeing a little more efficient operation, and it's obviously a weapon," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

"Ben is an elite quarterback as I've said," Haley said further of the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month. "I think he is preparing, a big part of that is his preparation and being ready for the opponent, because when he is out there, he obviously has to make some decisions that we all have to trust and count on him. He's done a very good job of it." - http://tinyurl.com/owfddns

It's that kind of play against the Baltimore Ravens, reflecting his 7-2 record against Ravens' QB Joe Flacco, including a 3-1 mark at Baltimore since '08, which will be needed this week, especially with such an emphasis on the pass.

Not that running back Le'Veon Bell isn't adequate, having not yet had a 100-yard game, because he is very versatile back with a high upside. In fact, it is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield that makes him a valuable cog in the Steelers offense. - http://tinyurl.com/phosh4y

But the Steelers offense has joined the NFL's pass-happy mentality. The Todd Haley offense, basically a West Coast Offense, has the passing game ranked eighth in the NFL. Not only because of the short passes, slants and bubble screens, but because of splash plays, also, as Big Ben leads all quarterbacks in deep throws/completions on (20+ yards down field) with 23, and is tied for the lead in completions that result in 20 yards or more with 47.

One main reason is that his No. 1 wide receiver and target, Antonio Brown, is also the No. 1 receiver (receptions) in the NFL. Though many thought this would be a problem this season with the departure of a receiver now playing with the Miami Dolphins, AB continually proves them all wrong as he has racked up 1,044 yards and six touchdowns on a league-best 80 receptions.

Speaking of no-huddle offenses...

"[The Ravens] no-huddle, but the thing that they have is the balance on the outside," said LeBeau. "They've got not two, but three very adept deep receivers on the outside. I would say any able bodied defensive back would be very welcomed against those guys because they've got a great deep passing quarterback with guys with a lot of speed."

This will be a test for LeBeau's defense. Flacco likes to go deep and will do so to Torrey Smith (859 receiving yards) and the potentially dangerous Marlon Brown (five touchdowns in only 28 receptions).

Having a complete secondary ready to execute will be imperative. Which means Ike Taylor can't take the second half off like he did Sunday, and rookie Shamarko Thomas will need to cause a "Headache" or two once again.

The running game, should still be respected because of Ray Rice being "one of the best backs that ever played," per LeBeau. "As long as he's in there, they're going to have a good run game." With nose tackle Steve McLendon being out Thursday, Hebron Fangupo and Al Woods must step in his absence. It is also important once again to have the front seven to, not only shut the running game down and make them one-dimensional.

They will also need to cause confusion and to get to Flacco who can be rattled. LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu have had memorable moments in getting to him in the past, although Woodley is likely out this week.

If so, the disruption caused by the hybrid linebacker may just be essential. Last Sunday, Polamalu totaled four tackles, one sack, knocked down a pass, forced a pair of fumbles and recovered another fumble en route to this week's AFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

The Ravens have been very inconsistent, but one thing that hasn't been is that when they tie or lose the turnover battle, they lose the game. The recent head-to-head matchups have produced similar results. And since we've established that the Steelers surge has been in part because of the lack of turnovers, this is yet again essential.

One last important statistic: In the last four games between the two teams, the team winning the third-down conversion battle won the game.

In the previous two wins by the Ravens, they were at a 48.5% conversion rate to the Steelers' 41%. In the last two Steelers wins over the Ravens, they were at 48% to the Ravens 40%.

Do those things and the Steelers will "arrive" at .500 and in the driver's seat for the final playoff spot.

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TIDBITS: Steelers Injury Report: McLendon out; Woodley doubtful; Gilbert, Keisel, Miller, Polamalu, Sylvester and Thomas probable.

Ravens injury report. Safety Bryden Trawick (ankle) didn't practice and DE Chris Canty (shoulder) limited.

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According to the American Brain Tumor Association, there are nearly 700,000 people living with a brain tumor (diagnosis). How many people love in Baltimore, Md? Nearly 700,000. Coincidence?