Inconsistency by Ravens and Steelers makes Sunday's game tough to predict

Both cities are still trying to figure out exactly how good their football teams are

November 01, 2011|Peter Schmuck

While you're agonizing over the inconsistent performance of the Ravens the past two weeks and wondering what all that might mean when they play the Steelers before a national television audience at Heinz Field, you can take some comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

The same kind of soul-searching is going on in Pittsburgh, even after the Steelers dispensed with the New England Patriots on Sunday.

The Steelers appear to be on the rise. They've won four straight games and have the best record in the AFC (6-2), albeit because the Ravens have played only seven games due to their early bye week. They also have their passing game in high gear after Ben Roethlisberger's abysmal five-turnover performance at M&T Bank Stadium. Yet there is genuine angst in Western Pennsylvania about the way the Steelers will perform on both sides of the ball against their chief AFC North rival Sunday.

Some of that is based, of course, on what happened in Week 1, went the Steelers turned the ball over seven times and lost by four touchdowns. Some of it is based on what has happened since, though the Steelers snapped back after a rocky 2-2 start to move quickly back to the top of the division standings.

If you read the Pittsburgh papers the past few days, you found all kinds of encouraging words for the Ravens.

For instance, Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier called out the erstwhile "Steal Curtain" for failing to take the ball away from opponents this year. The Steelers forced 35 turnovers during the regular season in 2010. This year, they have a grand total of three at the halfway mark in their schedule.

The Ravens, meanwhile, are tied for third in the league in total takeaways (16) and lead the NFL with 14 forced fumbles and 9 fumble recoveries.

Want more good/bad news (depending on which city you're from)? The Pittsburgh media is reporting that linebacker James Harrison probably won't play on Sunday night because of the fractured eye socket he suffered in the team's Oct. 2 loss to the Houston Texans. If he doesn't, the Steelers will be without three of their four starting linebackers, as James Farrior will be out several more weeks with a torn calf muscle and AFC sack leader LaMarr Woodley is out with a left hamstring injury.

Don't get too excited. In spite of all that, the Steelers still rank first in the NFL against the pass and held Tom Brady under 200 yards on Sunday. They've got terrific depth, and they still have Troy Polamalu, who always seems to make the big play when they need one most.

The main source of apprehension in Pittsburgh, really, is the fact that the Ravens absolutely trounced the Steelers in the regular-season opener, but that might actually be one of the reasons Ravens fans should be concerned. The Steelers have a big score to settle after the Ravens knocked them all over the Inner Harbor.

"Oh, yeah, because of what happened last time,'' receiver Mike Wallace told reporters in Pittsburgh this week. "It was embarrassing. To say the least it was embarrassing. But it's a new week, a new part of the season. It's the second half of the season. It's going to be an interesting game."

It will be also be a new-look Pittsburgh team. The Steelers have become much more of a pass-first offense as the season has progressed, ranking eighth in the NFL in through the air and only 14th on the ground. Roethlisberger has thrown for 726 yards and five touchdowns in his last two games, but there is even room for some local concern about that.

Nobody is going to throw you a parade for carving up the Arizona Cardinals' defense and — though it's almost hard to believe — the Patriots rank 31st in total defense and last in the NFL against the pass.

The Ravens will tell Roethlisberger whether he's really all that. They rank first in total defense and third in passing yards allowed per game. Of course, that works both ways, since the Steelers' defense has allowed fewer passing yards per game than the Ravens and will be going up against an offense that ranks just 14th in the league.

Bottom line: The Steelers are the better offensive team right now and the Ravens are the better defensive team, which really doesn't tell you anythinng about how this rivalry game will develop with control of the AFC North on the line.

Whether you're in Pittsburgh or Baltimore, you'll just have to sweat it out.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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