|Thursday, December 13
Updated: December 14, 11:26 AM ET
Kicking games could be deciding factor
By Joe Theismann
Special to ESPN.com
Looking at Sunday night's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), I could talk about Kordell Stewart, Elvis Grbac, Jerome Bettis, Shannon Sharpe, Ray Lewis or Plaxico Burress. But which players will make the biggest difference in this physical AFC Central showdown? The kickers -- Kris Brown and Matt Stover.
The last time the two teams met, the Steelers controlled the game. They rushed for 123 yards and averaged 3.5 yards a carry; the Ravens ran for 41 and averaged 1.6 yards a carry. Overall, Pittsburgh had 348 total yards of offense, Baltimore only 183. The Steelers converted five of 17 third-down opportunities, while the Ravens converted one of 11.
However, the Ravens won the game, 13-10. Why? Brown missed four of five field-goal attempts, misfiring from 33, 35, 41 and 48 yards.
This season the Steelers have more weapons to generate points than the Ravens -- except for the kicker. Brown missed two more field-goal opportunities and an extra-point attempt last week against the Jets despite winning 18-7. While Stover has hit 88 percent of his field-goal attempts, Brown is now six of 14 from 40-49 yards and 11 of 14 from 30-39 yards.
The Steelers' offense, although it is improved, is geared to score 15-21 points a game, not 28. With their No. 1 rated defense, Pittsburgh doesn't have to throw the ball all over the place to win. The Steelers can run the ball, remain conservative, play mistake-free football and get one-to-three field goals from their kicker. But if Brown keeps missing chances to get three points, it could psychologically kill his team, changing what they need to accomplish both offensively and defensively.
Other than Brown, Pittsburgh's biggest question mark is the health of Bettis, whose status will be a game-time decision. Although Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue are solid backups, I don't think the Steelers can be as effective without Bettis. If he is back, we will see both teams at near full strength. And with the battle of words being exchanged this week between Bettis, Lewis, Burress and Sharpe, his return would only add to the physical intensity of the game.
The Ravens are coming off a bye. Over the last five years they are 2-3 following a bye week. That means the extra time off should not be a factor except that they expect to get some key players back -- defensive end Rob Burnett, defensive tackle Sam Adams, cornerback James Trapp and running back Terry Allen. The Ravens should be as healthy as they have been all year.
Surprisingly, the Baltimore defense has shown some vulnerability this season. Teams have thrown more effectively on the Ravens because they have been unable to mount a consistent pass rush. They lost defensive end Michael McCrary for the season. Burnett and Adams have been hurt. They had to move Peter Boulware from linebacker to defensive end. Adalius Thomas has played well, but he's only a second-year player. He is not McCrary, a Pro Bowl player with a motor that never quits.
More than yards allowed per game, the defensive statistic I consider most important is points allowed per game. After setting the NFL record last season for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (10.3 points a game), the Ravens are giving up 17.8 points a game, only the ninth-best total in the league.
In Baltimore's case, the stat is a bit misleading. The reason more points are being scored against the Ravens is that the offense has created bad situations for the defense. They have 31 giveaways (only the Rams and Colts have more) and are minus-11 in turnover margin.
The Ravens are giving opposing teams a shorter field and more opportunities to either kick a field goal or possibly score a touchdown. If teams are given more chances to score, the defensive statistics will be higher no matter what. If they give the ball away to the Steelers, they will fall further behind in the division.
Sunday's game will go a long way toward deciding what will happen in the playoffs. You can't discount Brian Billick's 8-0 record in December during his coaching stint in Baltimore. Billick will say to his team, "This is what we do in the month of December." Meanwhile, Bill Cowher will tell his players, "This is how we play Steeler football."
It may be the second of two regular-season meetings between the two division rivals, but I don't think it will be the last time they will meet. I expect the Steelers and the Ravens to be playing each other again in January.
Here are the keys to Sunday night's game:
Three keys for the Steelers
2. Solid day for Stewart. Stewart is the X-factor. He must account for 250 yards of offense, with probably 50 or 60 of it coming on the ground. Last month he rushed for 31 yards on eight carries against Baltimore, or almost as much as the Ravens got overall. In Mike Mularkey's offense, Stewart has been more efficient throwing the ball because he knows where he wants to go with the football and the receivers know where they are supposed to be. Mularkey kept what Kevin Gilbride had implemented, but he just simplified the reads. Gilbride's offense was too difficult and complex. Everybody had to make a read. Heck, we had to make a read watching it. It looked too much like brain surgery. Now Stewart is in an offense for the second year and looking much more comfortable.
3. Get after Grbac. The Steelers, third in the NFL with 41 sacks, must force Grbac to make turnovers so they have a short field to work with. Under pressure from the Steelers' defense, Grbac is liable to make critical mistakes. The Ravens have lost every game in which Grbac has thrown two or more interceptions.
Three keys for the Ravens
2. Run the ball. The Ravens must find a way to run against the Steelers. They can't run the ball for 41 yards. They need 85 yards rushing. If they can get 85 on 25 carries, that means they would average better than three yards a carry and put themselves in better position to convert on third down. The Ravens need that to keep the ball and sustain drives.
3. Dual purpose on defense. The Ravens' defense must do two things -- control Bettis and contain Stewart. If Bettis can't play, the Ravens can concentrate more on stopping Stewart from having a big day.