It was on Sunday the 13th of November, that I sat on the side of my bed, hands to my head, sighing. The Pittsburgh Steelers had just blown a game to the Dallas Cowboys to extend their losing streak to four games, dropping their season record to 4-5.
With the offense scoring a late touchdown on a fake spike play that had me and any other Steeler fan jumping for joy, we were then greeted with a Dallas Cowboys offense who managed to counter with a touchdown of their own – an Ezekiel Elliot touchdown run with 15 seconds remaining…
Pathetic was the only way I could sum it up.
I looked back to the off season when the Steelers where unanimously being discussed as Superbowl contenders, how they where going to score hundreds of points and spread fear through the league. Then I looked at some of the games they had played; a 34-3 loss to the Eagles? A 30-15 loss to the Dolphins? A 21-14 loss to the Ravens that took the team 3 quarters to score? Where was this super team everyone had been raving about?
I came to grips with the reality that perhaps the Steelers won’t make the playoffs, that they simply just aren’t that good.
Fast forward to now, and I am back in my rightful place as driver of the Steelers hype train. They are on a five-game win streak and look like a team poised for the playoffs, not because they are scoring hundreds of points like most anticipated, but because they are winning by any means necessary; be that a dominating defensive performance the likes we saw in Cleveland five weeks ago, by Le’Veon Bell setting a franchise record for rushing yards in a game against the Bills, or by kicking six field goals to slay the Bengals, this Steelers team is trending upwards at the perfect time.
A trend that the Steelers have consistently had during the Mike Tomlin era is the ability to grow and strengthen as the season progresses. A kind of steely resilience that allows them to always be in contention for the playoffs and reason why Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record as the head coach. A great example of that was last year, despite being bogged down in a mire of injuries to the quarterback, running back, receivers, offensive line, and multiple defenders, the Steelers still fought for a wildcard spot, beat the Bengals, and were a fumble away from advancing to the AFC Championship game.
On Christmas Day they face their toughest and most rewarding challenge yet: The Baltimore Ravens, at home, on Christmas Day. If the Steelers win they will win the AFC North and advance to the playoffs. If there was ever a time to prove to everyone what you’re made of, this is it.
It’s all set up to be one of the most entertaining games we’ve seen this year.
The Steelers and Ravens rivalry is probably one of the most intense rivalries in American sports, It’s an immovable object colliding with an unstoppable force, and the stakes are usually high.
The Ravens beat the Steelers earlier in the year 21-14. Now that was a hair pulling game to watch because the Steelers high powered offense looked like, to put it bluntly, hot trash. They struggled to gain first downs, had nine three-and-outs, and to top it off the Steelers defense gave up a 95-yard touchdown to none other than ex-Steeler phenom Mike Wallace.
Since then the two teams have progressed and are noticeably different from their earlier meeting. The Ravens are now starting a new running back in Terrence West and are more committed to running the ball, Joe Flacco’s play has been trending upwards, Ben Roethlisberger for the Steelers isn’t fresh off knee surgery, and the Steelers defense is playing at a much higher level. So it’s small progressions like that which make this matchup different. Not to mention the stakes are at an all time high.
In order for the Steelers to beat the Ravens I really think it comes down to two things; stop Mike Wallace and give Big Ben the ball.
Stopping Mike Wallace is a high priority for the Steelers because his straight line speed and ability to go over the top of the safeties presents a very difficult issue for a Steelers secondary that struggles in general. Combining Wallace’s deep play ability with the possession role Steve Smith is playing gives the Ravens a deadly one-two combo, not to mention tight end Dennis Pitta. Eliminating the deep ball will shorten the field for the Steelers defense and force Flacco to pick them apart methodically, this is where he makes mistakes and where the defense can capitalize on Flacco’s poor decisions.
Coming into this game the Ravens boast the second best run defense in the league, trying to run on the Ravens is a hapless prospect because your not going to be successful. What will work is what worked a few years ago. It was November 2nd 2014, the Steelers deployed a pass-happy gameplan and Ben ripped it for 340-yards and 6-TD’s, blowing out the Ravens 43-23. This strategy needs to be applied again, not only because of what Ben is capable of, but also because the offensive line is playing some great football right now, they are second best in the league when it comes to protecting the quarterback, only allowing seventeen sacks all season. Usually vs the Ravens the Steelers are far too willing to keep playing conservative offense then turning to their franchise quarterback when the game is out of reach, now they need to turn to him early and live or die by his play.
Now I will give the Ravens their due respect as they do seem to have the Steelers number, they have won the last four straight matchups since 2014 and always play well in Heinz field.
I am however struggling to sum up in words how excited I am for this game. The icing on the cake for me is that its on Christmas Day, and the Steelers could be giving me the greatest Christmas present of all, a 2016 playoff berth!
Here We Go Steelers.
Predicted score: 24-20 Steelers.