Last week, the Ravens put a thrashing on the Oakland Raiders, winning in convincing 55-20 fashion. On the way, the Ravens set a franchise record for most points scored in a game. The team started off slowly, putting up 10 points in the first quarter, including a quarterback sneak that put Joe Flacco in the end zone for a touchdown. After a Raiders field goal, Flacco drove the Ravens down the field and finished it off with a touchdown pass to his new favorite target, Dennis Pitta. Pitta and fellow TE Ed Dickson combined for 7 of Flacco's 21 completions, and 126 of his 341 yards. The Raiders finally found the end zone in the closing minutes of the first half on a catch-and-run 55-yard score by Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland alumni and a former teammate of Torrey Smith. The two exchanged their jerseys following the game. The Ravens made sure they responded, as Flacco drove the offense 80 yards in just over a minute. Ray Rice finished the drive with a 7-yard run on a beautifully-executed play. At the half, the Ravens held a commanding 27-10 lead. In the first minutes of the second half, the Ravens attempted to step on the Raiders' throats. Joe Flacco launched a 47-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith to extend the Ravens' lead. Flacco's deep-field accuracy Sunday was the best I've ever seen from him. After the Raiders' responded by splitting the Ravens' secondary for a score, Flacco proved that his day was not yet done. He found Smith once again, this time from 20 yards out, to give the Ravens a 41-17 lead. The offense had put up points, the defense had limited the Raiders, the only thing missing was a special teams score. Well, we got two. It all started on the Ravens' next drive. When the Ravens failed to convert on third down deep in Raiders territory, Raiders CB Joselio Hanson began celebrating the stop by getting in Anquan Boldin's face and repeatedly signaling an incomplete pass (Boldin was the intended receiver on the play). This prompted what could be one of the great images of the season. Boldin gave Hanson the classic "in-your-face," waving his index finger at the scoreboard to show the Ravens' dominating lead. In what was possibly a subtle act of retribution for Hanson's actions, the Ravens faked a field goal on fourth down, and punter Sam Koch rushed 7 yards untouched into the end zone. Following another Raiders' field goal, the Ravens put up their other special teams score, the final score of the game. Jacoby Jones caught the ball 5 yards into the end zone, and followed his blockers 100 more yards, untouched, to finish off the afternoon. It was Jones' second kickoff return for a touchdown this year. He was subsequently named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
Player of the Game: Ravens QB Joe Flacco-21/33 for 341 yards, 3 passing touchdowns, 1 rushing touchdown
Honorable Mention: Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron-I have been one of those Cameron doubters, as have many. From top to bottom, this may have been the greatest game-plan he has concocted as a Raven. Kudos to Cam.
Key to the Win: The Raiders had no idea what they were in for when they ran onto the gridiron, and the Ravens took advantage of it. This was a complete team win. Most complaints about this game would be knit-picking.
Next Sunday, the greatest rivalry in the NFL will be renewed. The first of two matchups in just three weeks against the Steelers will be Sunday night in front of a national audience. The Steelers are 6-3 on the year, just one game back of the first-place Ravens in the AFC North. But this game will be different. This could be a look into the near future of this great rivalry. Both defenses, known for their physicality, will be without their respective leaders. Ray Lewis of course, for the Ravens, and Troy Polamalu for the Steelers, who has missed five consecutive games with a calf injury. Despite the loss, the Steelers have not missed a beat this year on defense. They rank first in the NFL in yards given up per game and passing yards given up per game. This will present a large challenge for a Ravens offense reeling off of an explosion against the Raiders. But those points last week mean nothing if they can't back it up in this game. The Steelers' offense is a whole different story. Their stalwart leader, Ben Roethlisberger, was sidelined last week with injuries to his throwing shoulder and ribs. He will miss this game and possibly more. Many people have argued that Roethlisberger's toughness will propel him to play this game, but they are sadly misinformed. Big Ben's rib is dangerously close to his heart, and if they touch each other, it could become life-threatening. As for his shoulder, it's not a matter of toughness, yet a matter of "Can you throw the football?" Ben's replacement will be the highly-touted but disappointing Byron Leftwich, a top-10 draft pick out of Marshall in 2003 who never realized his potential. Leftwich is notoriously sedentary in the pocket, and has been called one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the league, an interesting juxtaposition for Ben Roethlisberger's backup. He does have a very strong arm, one that he showed Monday night against the Chiefs. Controlling that arm is another story. But I expect the Steelers to rely on their two-headed rushing attack of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. The two backs are very similar, using physical running to beat down defenses. Dwyer is a scary resurrection of Jerome Bettis, while Redman is more of a finesse back. If they have their way against an inconsistent Ravens rush defense, this could turn into an ugly game. There is no quantifying the loss of Roethlisberger, and it could end up deciding not just the game, but the division.
Prediction: If the Ravens can break from bad habits and put pressure on an immobile Byron Leftwich, the Steelers pass attack will be virtually shut down. But if Leftwich has time in the pocket, and uses his arm to burn the Ravens, this game won't be nearly as easy as some project. Also, make sure not to overlook the top-ranked Steelers defense. And remember this is still Ravens-Steelers, the bloodiest game played in the NFL today. I have the Ravens winning another hard battle, 20-13.
Key Matchups for Ravens at Steelers
Ravens WR Torrey Smith vs. Steelers CB Keenan Lewis Edge: Smith
Analysis: There was some trash-talking on Lewis' part this week, directly at Smith. Expect Smith to reprise his role as Steelers' killer for some revenge.
Ravens offensive line vs. Steelers pass rush Edge: Steelers
Analysis: This could go either way, but there is a better chance of the Steelers getting to the pocket quickly, as we've seen in the past. Could be dangerous.
Ravens linebackers vs. Steelers running backs Edge: Steelers
Analysis: The Steelers have proven to be an effective rushing team this year, and I don't have to tell you about the Ravens' inability to guard against the run.
Ravens LB Terrell Suggs vs. Steelers QB Byron Leftwich Edge: Suggs
Analysis: If there was a week for Suggs to break out, this would be the one. He would love to put a dagger in the Steelers' hearts, and Leftwich is the perfect target for a good pass rusher. Suggs will be in his face all night.
CB Jimmy Smith-Abs-OUT
DE Pernell McPhee-Thigh-DBT
S Christian Thompson-Thigh-QST
NT Terrence Cody-Arm-QST
WR Antonio Brown-Ankle-OUT
QB Ben Roethlisberger-Shoulder-OUT
S Troy Polamalu-Calf-OUT
T Marcus Gilbert-Ankle-OUT
LB Stevenson Sylvester-Hamstring-QST
AFC North Standings
Team W L
Ravens 7 2
Steelers 6 3
Bengals 4 5
Browns 2 7
That's it for this week's version of my Ravens Report, see you next week and go Ravens!