By now, we've all had a chance to express our incredulity about the Steelers' 3-0 start. If the narrative spun by scores on NFL writers is to be believed, no one person thought it possible that the Steelers could achieve a winning record - much less a perfect one - without Ben Roethlisberger under center.
That's not entirely true. I mean, I certainly didn't expect it. But I definitely considered the possibility, however remote. And if it were going to play out in the Steelers favor, it was going to have to be exactly as as it has been. The defense, with four players returning who were either injured or missing in 2009, would have to be the overpowering unit it was in 2008. It was been. The offense would have to do just enough to win while minimizing turnovers. For the most part, that has been the case. The Steelers are tied for first in the NFL with a +6 turnover differential.
And now the Steelers can complete their improbable four-game run before Roethlisberger's return with a perfect record by besting the hated, inferiority complex-plagued Ravens . For all their bitching to the NFL about how they're the bastard child of the league that always gets screwed over, Baltimore has had pretty favorable scheduling the first four weeks. The NFL gave them their two most difficult road games in times when they would be the easiest; To wit: the Jets before Raven killer Santonio Holmes returns and the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers, meanwhile, weren't given their toughest stretch out of the gate, but it certainly wasn't the easiest, either. Only one of their first four opponents was a playoff team last season, but two of the others were certainly playoff caliber and had been there the season before last. The difficulty of Pittsburgh's early run is evidenced by the fact that, of their first three opponents, the Steelers have been the only team that beat Atlanta, Tennessee or Tampa so far this season.
As for the Ravens, there was an interesting quote to come out of the Trevor Pryce drama that unfolded yesterday. Pryce, of course, was cut earlier this week by Baltimore, with the understanding that he would re-sign early next week. Happens all the time. The Steelers did it with Byron Leftwich just the other week. Except Pryce signed the Jets on Thursday. It was amusing to watch Terrell Suggs get all pissy about it after the fact, but not quite as amusing as this line from Pryce about the Ravens defense he was leaving behind:
"We couldn't stop water from running. We had some stuff to work out."
Oh, that's tasty. That Ravens defense, of course, gave up 144 rushing yards to Peyton Hillis last week at home. They let LaDainian Tomlinson average 5.6 yards per carry in Week 1 when the Jets posed absolutely no threat in the passing game. Baltimore's secondary was supposed to be the clear weakness coming into the season, only now their run defense is looking vulnerable as well.
Of course, they did a halfway decent job of containing Cedric Benson in Week 2, so Baltimore at least has the capability not to let teams always run over them. But make no mistake, this is not the Ravens suffocating defense of years past. You can run the ball on this team. And the Steelers will test that on Sunday. If they make inroads early, this could be a blowout repeat of last week. While the offense struggled on its first few possessions against Tampa, once this team gets the lead, it doesn't look back.
Joe Flacco finally put together a decent performance last week against the Browns. That's against Cleveland's pass defense at home, so it's mostly whatever, but seeing Flacco establish a connection with Anquan Boldin is worrisome for this Sunday. Flacco last year did well when teams were throwing the house at him with the blitz, so it's probably the good thing the Steelers can bring pressure with only four rushers. LaMarr Woodley, I've noticed, has been dropping into pass coverage a lot through the first four weeks and been doing a better than average job at it. That was the case early last season as well before the Steelers turned him loose later in the year. Woodley owns the Ravens on defense every bit as much as Santonio Holmes did on offense. He posted three sacks in the two meetings against them last year. Flacco sucks ass against the Cover 2, as was established with his four interception performance in Week 2. Woodley can bring enough pressure that the Steelers can get away with dropping some people back in passing situations.
It's to be expected with the Roethlisberger shitshow going on, but people have overstated Charlie Batch's performance last week. Many of these people probably didn't even watch the game and just saw the box score or highlights. Don't get me wrong, Batch played all right, but his numbers were greatly enhanced by the two deep balls to Wallace that were benefited by clueless coverage or fortunate tips. Batch has to play a more thoroughly sound game Sunday for Pittsburgh to have a chance.
I imagine Ray Rice will play, but in a somewhat limited capacity and with limited effectiveness. McGahee is a decent alternative option, but doesn't worry me anywhere nearly as much as Rice, who is also a huge weapon in the passing game. Without Rice, the Ravens are much easier to defend.
So, sure, the Ravens got the break of having their road game in Pittsburgh out of the way with Ben suspended. But the Steelers did catch them at a time when both Ed Reed is out and Ray Rice is hampered with a knee bruise. Both teams are sufficiently shorthanded that there shouldn't be any excuses. While even I've been guilty of using the "house money" line this week, there are no taking wins for granted in the NFL. This is a Steelers team that started 6-2 last season only to flame out down the stretch. The last thing any of us wants is another situation like last season where we've counting the close calls, knowing that if any of them had gone the other way, Pittsburgh would have been in the postseason.
That and hearing the Ravens search for a way to blame the refs for another loss is to tantalizing a possibility not to pine for.