By Jason Keidel
It’s a bit early in the NFL campaign for season-defining games. But if you’ll allow for one in September, you may find it in Baltimore on Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) host the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) for first place in the AFC North.
The Ravens and Steelers should be at their snarling best on Sunday. Adding to the natural, yearly disdain they already feel toward the other, each team lost in ugly fashion last week to an inferior club. The Ravens were surprisingly stomped by the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, while the Steelers flubbed their way to an overtime loss to the Bears in Chicago.
Pundits are pounding the Ravens for their ineptitude on offense, but they are at least averaging a robust 142.3 yards rushing per game, fourth-best in the NFL. Baltimore’s ground game features three backs — Alex Collins, Javorius Allen, and Terrance West — with at least 100 yards this season. (Washington is the only other team with three such runners.)
You can decide if that accounts for Baltimore’s league-worst 121.3 passing yards per game, dead-last in the league. Either way, in the pass-happy era of pro football, and with Joe Flacco among the highest-paid quarterbacks in the sport, they should find more yards through the air.
Like most solid franchises, the Ravens are not pointing fingers. In fact, it’s the coaches, not the players, taking one for the team. Indeed, Baltimore’s top assistant coaches say it was their schemes, not execution, that led to their 44-7 drubbing at the hands of the Jags.
“I’ll tell you what, this is my responsibility now,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg told the Baltimore Sun. “I’ve got a little responsibility here, and I take that responsibility very, very seriously. What happened that last ball game, a lot of colorful verbs, right? So now where do we go? We get better every day.”
Something was indeed awry when Flacco, a Super Bowl MVP, threw for 28 yards in the first 56 minutes in London. “Everyone needs to step up, and it starts with me,” Mornhinweg concluded. “That thing last week, everyone needs to do better, period. That’s how we’re going to handle this thing.”
In a sense, September has been Flacco’s training camp. He missed the preseason because of injury. The Ravens were worried enough about Flacco’s status that they considered signing Colin Kaepernick, which quickly dissolved into political barbs and a rather ugly tweet from Kaepernick’s girlfriend, comparing Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and iconic LB Ray Lewis to two characters from Django Unchained.
The Steelers, preseason favorites to at least challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy, have been oddly awkward on offense. Their heralded “Big Three” — QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell — are considered the best offensive triumvirate in the sport. Yet until recently, they’ve rarely played at the same time, largely due to injuries to Big Ben or injury/suspensions from Bell.
Like for Flacco, September is summer for Bell, who also missed the preseason because he didn’t sign his franchise tag tender until the beginning of this month. Last year, Bell became the first player in NFL history to average at least 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving. But he has not had his expected explosion and production so far in 2017, averaging 60 yards rushing through three games.
“I have to go out there and be the special player that I can be,” Bell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I haven’t really made the plays necessary to help my team, especially last game,” he said of the eyesore of a loss to the Bears. “I was really kicking myself for the last game.”
The offense will come around. It’s the defense that has given Steelers fans indigestion over the last few years. While they rank third in total defense (260 YPG), including just 136.7 passing yards allowed per game (No. 2 in NFL), the stats are a bit misleading when you consider they’ve played the offensively anemic Browns and Bears, and a Vikings club sans Sam Bradford.
But no matter their status or the standings, the Steelers and Ravens are the Hatfields and McCoys of the modern NFL, two tough teams from hardscrabble towns whose games always seem to be won by the team that scores last. (Fourteen of their last 19 games have been decided by four or fewer points.) And you will not find two men who represent their teams and towns better than their head coaches. Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh, who were hired in 2007 and 2008, respectively, are two of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL, perhaps the most transient of American team sports. Only Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy, and Sean Payton have worn their respective headsets longer.
Fitting for the two teams that have owned the AFC North for the best part of the last decade. And, as of Sunday night, one will be looking down upon the other. Until they meet again, in Pittsburgh, on December 10.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.