Owings Mills, MD—It is no secret that battles between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers are brutal. Moreover, only the players who suit up to participate in these slugfests truly understands that it not just another football game between these two AFC North titans—it’s punishment.
Certain decisions that the Ravens have made have struck a nerve with many Ravens’ fans—and some members of the NFL community—such as releasing or allowing key players to get away from the confines of “the Castle” in Owings Mills, MD.
Knowing that the Ravens needed to be solid in their running game in order to defeat their Goliath, the Steelers, they had to sign at least two physical backs to be in position to target their stones and throw them effectively.
Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap were released for cap reasons, along with running back Willie McGahee. McGahee’s release was understandable in a business sense, because his salary counted $6 million against the team’s salary cap.
Whether or not McGahee and the Ravens discussed a new deal to keep the 29-year old, tough, yard gaining running back is unknown. However, to allow fullback Le’Ron McClain to sign with another team, only to eventually sign a one-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, left people scratching their heads. His experience and value—especially against the Steelers—was huge.
The Ravens have been successful against the Steelers in their running game because their three-headed attack was just as tough as Pittsburgh’s defenders, and were able to wear them down.
However, the Ravens dreams to be something they are not by throwing the ball and being fancy caused them to bail out the Steelers, by throwing the ball on third-and-short situations.
The Ravens signed wide receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh last season. This was to provide quarterback Joe Flacco with some veteran hands to help defeat the Steelers on the road and in the playoffs, not to pad stats. And when Boldin and Houshmandzadeh were call upon in the playoffs, which was the reason why they were signed for that moment, they didn’t come through.
Signing these veteran receivers were both great moves, but the Ravens also compromised who they were as a physical running team and the Steelers forced Baltimore to think twice about executing their offense.
In their two regular season meetings in 2009 against the Steelers, the Ravens ran the ball 67 times and passed it 60 times, as they split 1-1.
Last season in their first matchup the Ravens rushed the ball 27 times and had 37 passing attempts. Houshmandzadeh managed to catch the winning touchdown pass to defeat the Steelers, after which the Ravens started to look to their air attack more than their bread and butter running game.
In their second matchup the Ravens passed the ball 33 times, but rushed only 20 times. On a fourth-and-two deep in the Steelers territory, the Ravens opted to pass when they should have ran. The ball was under thrown to tight end Ed Dickson.
Ultimately, the Ravens ran the ball 20 times less and threw the ball 10 times more last season against the Steelers, compared to the previous year. The lack of running attempts was unsettling, especially for McClain.
The Ravens have decent talent in the backfield, but are they adequate enough, especially in the sense of running against the Steelers? Running back Jalen Parmele is the only yards gainer outside starting running back Ray Rice, who had some on-the-field experience.
After losing two key members of the running game, the Ravens signed running back Ricky Williams who decided to bring his talents to ‘South’-west Baltimore. He agreed to a two-year, $4 million deal on Tuesday, pending a physical.
The Ravens signed All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach to a three-year, $11 million deal on July 31st to help pave the way for Rice, also filling the hole left by McClain. Leach helped lead the way for running back Arian Foster, who finished as the league leading rusher in the NFL with 1,616 yards.
The Ravens are not concerned about Rice being the league’s leading rusher, but are instead focused on providing him with help.
Without a doubt, the Ravens need to be effective in the passing game. However, hopefully they are over their passing addiction and will get back to who they are, a physical, stampeding squad.
“Obviously, it is something we need to improve from a year ago,” Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said after Ravens practice on Monday. “We’d like to get back [to] where we were two and three years ago, where we were one of best—if not the best—in the league. I think we know what we want to be, and I think we know how to do it, and it’s a matter of getting these guys a little more comfortable.
“Ray Rice will play a major role in short-yardage and goal-line [situations] this year,” he continued. “We were just fortunate to have a guy like [former RB] Willis [McGahee], but this year Ray Rice will be in short-yardage and goal-line [situations] as well. He is outstanding. We just happened to have a couple of them in the last few years. You’ll see him in there as well.”
Leach should fit fine in this AFC North style of physical football. Although the physicality of this division is on a whole other level.
After coming out of a premature two-year retirement, due to his unwillingness to stop smoking marijuana and avoid suspensions, Williams’ return has been nothing short of remarkable as a member of the Miami Dolphins.
However, the question is: at the age of 34, will the talents of Williams hold up under the brutality of the AFC North? Better yet, will he hold up against the Steelers? This is not wonderland anymore. The AFC East is not nearly as physical.
“We’ll see. I think [that’s] a fair question and a good question,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron when asked about Williams’ ability to help the Ravens. “We’ll see, and I think it will all be obvious to us, but I know he has a big-time chance of helping us.”
The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. For the Ravens, their Super Bowl hopes lie in defeating the Steelers. Sticking to their guns in the running game is essential in accomplishing that feat.
Williams showed up at Ravens camp Tuesday morning with the shaved-look, admitting that the hardest hit he took was from linebacker Ray Lewis in 2002. However, will Williams hold up? He will be taking many Lewis type hits from the Steelers.
“It’s just a mirror of my maturity,” Williams, who turned down the Detroit Lions‘ offer to play for them, said yesterday after practice. “I think we all go through phases. I think at my heart I’m a rebel, and I think I’ve found more productive and mature ways to express my rebellion.”
The football world will see because that’s what it’s all about.
“The opportunity in Detroit opened up, and it would have been a chance for me to play a lot and be able to contribute a lot,” said Williams. “But Baltimore is an established organization with a lot of vets, and…I thought I would fit in well in this situation and be able to enjoy myself and possibly win a Super Bowl.”