Baltimore's fan base and, to a slightly lesser but still significant extent, their front office evaluate their team's season based on how well they do against the Steelers. Save the games they've played against Pittsburgh (at least those that Ben Roethlisberger plays), the Ravens have been an incredibly successful team the last few seasons. But close as they may get, they just can't conquer their biggest rivals. The margin has been achingly close each time, to the point that a few minor changes could make all the difference.
Flacco has his faults and as Steelers fans, we've seen him at his worst more often than not, but the guy throws a good deep ball.
Okay, maybe not this one.
Nevertheless, Flacco is usually pretty good when he's going deep. To that end, Derrick Mason, a good intermediate range receiver, wasn't much help. And Anquan Boldin isn't a whole lot better as a deep threat. Bawlmer took a flyer on Donte Stallworth last season and pretty much got their money's worth. They had a quarterback who's best asset is a deep ball and their star-studded receiver corps had three possession receivers (Mason, Boldin, Houshmandzadeh) and one mediocre deep threat who didn't end up doing anything (Stallworth).
So, even though I doubt it was their plan all along, the strategy to dump Mason and trade for Lee Evans turned out to be a fairly solid one for Baltimore. It may cost them early in the year when Flacco misses his third down security blanket, but by the end of the year it may end up looking inspired. Evans isn't great - above average might be pushing it to some - but he'll at least give Baltimore a halfway credible deep threat. He looked pretty good with Flacco in the preseason, for what it's worth. Pittsburgh's corners will never be mistaken for the fastest in the league, so of all the things Baltimore did since January, that's the one that concerns me most.
Of course, the addition of Evans is tempered by the aforementioned loss of Mason, as well as Todd Heap. Sure, Baltimore's tight end hadn't been putting up the receiving numbers he had since his prime in '05-'06, but I can't see the duo of Ed Dickson (some physical talent, but lots of mental fuck-ups in the times I saw him play) and Dennis Pitta making anyone forget about him in the foreseeable future. One day, perhaps, but certainly not this year.
The Ravens secondary didn't need the youth movement as badly as the receiving corps so much as it simply needed change. For all the hype for Lardarius Webb as a no. 1 corner last season, there he was having Antonio Brown blow past him on a 3rd and 20 in a huge play in a playoff game. Enter first-round pick Jimmy Smith and fourth-year player Cary Williams (one career start) as the proffered solution. Williams seems like more of a stopgap, while Smith might one day be good/great, though he looked downright confused in preseason action. You could even say he was laughably bad against the Redskins. Unless the new Baltimore defensive coordinator has made huge inroads with a pass rush that was decidedly lackluster in 2010, the Ravens secondary could be set up for an extremely difficult and even sobering early season test.
The Bryant McKinnie signing is the obvious exception to this theme, as he's overweight, old and of little to no use to the team that made him a name. It's easy to scoff at his signing, but the same was said of the Steelers acquisition of Flozell Adams last season. Adams, though hardly perfect, still managed to have a solid season and might have been the Steelers' second or third best lineman in 2010. If McKinnie produces anywhere nearly that well for Baltimore, it will have been a tremendous gamble.
For all the searing hatred I have for the Ravens, I can laud some of the gutsy moves they made. They may not position their team well for a Week 1 showdown against their nemesis (fine by me, btw) but they are able to retool at key positions without going into a full-on rebuilding stage. And who knows? By the end of the year, or even the second meeting in Pittsburgh - things might be better suited for them.
At some point, the Ravens are going to find a way to get the better of the Steelers. That won't necessarily mean that the series will swing in their favor, but Baltimore will eventually manage to steal a win. Maybe even in a game where Charlie Batch isn't starting. Hell, even the Browns finally beat Pittsburgh two seasons back. It can happen. Pittsburgh may not have the uncertainty of new faces in new places, but the health of both its starting corners, as well as that of Maurkice Pouncey and James Harrison are big question marks.
So Baltimore is close. As Baltimore has been the last few years. The riskiness of the Ravens new approach is in its disjointedness - trying to win now with a concerned eye cast toward the future. It's a difficult proposition and even more difficult in the early going. We'll see Sunday whether they can claim immediate dividends or start hoping the long view has a pleasant vista.