Commentary

The Ali-Frazier of the NFL

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is the Ali-Frazier of the NFL, but this year with a twist

Originally Published: November 3, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is the NFL's version of Ali-Frazier, but for this rematch, the boxers might change their styles. Normally, the Steelers' defense loves to thrive on the zone blitz to harass quarterbacks. But last week, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin let the corners play man-to-man and the Steelers were able to hold Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to 198 passing yards. Teams that use man coverage against the Ravens often have success because it creates matchup problems against Ravens receivers, who have trouble getting separation.

The other change by the Steelers could be their style of defense. Linebackers James Harrison, James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley are hurt, which could put the Steelers in position to try more plays from a 4-3 defense. Woodley (hamstring) has been ruled out of Sunday night's game. Harrison (eye injury) is listed as probable and Farrior (calf) is questionable.

The Ravens have their own adjustments. Last week in the second half against the Cardinals, Baltimore QB Joe Flacco had his best half since beating the Steelers in Week 1, when Ravens coach John Harbaugh let him use shotgun formations and spread the field using two-tight-end sets. That switch allowed the Ravens to roar back from a 21-point deficit against Arizona, the greatest comeback in Ravens history.

Flacco is completing 53.8 percent of his passes this season, and according to ESPN Stats and Information, he's completing 56.8 percent of his passes from the shotgun this year. In several of their meetings against the Steelers, the Ravens have thrown more than they have run. Throughout his career, Flacco has averaged 31 passes per game against the Steelers.

In their 35-7 win over the Steelers in Week 1, the Ravens rushed for 170 yards and the Steelers had seven turnovers. Recently, the Steelers have had the edge in the series: Tomlin is 7-4 (including the postseason) against the Ravens, while Harbaugh is 3-6 against Pittsburgh.

1. Getting the best of Brees: Three weeks ago, QB Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers passed for 303 yards against the Saints in a 26-20 victory. If they want to win the NFC South, all the pressure is on the Saints in Sunday's rematch at the Superdome. At home, the Saints are 3-0 and have outscored their opponents 132-53. On the road, the Saints and QB Drew Brees have struggled, going 2-3. Believe it or not, the Bucs have won three of their past four games against the Saints, and New Orleans coach Sean Payton is 5-6 against the Bucs. Because of their troubles on the road, the Saints can't afford to lose at home to the Bucs. A Saints loss Sunday could point to a slight changing of the guard in the NFC South as the division race will start to take shape over the next two weeks. In Week 9, the Saints travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons, who have a good chance of improving to 5-3 as they play the winless Colts in Indianapolis this week.

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
AP Photo/Denis PoroyQuarterback Philip Rivers leads the NFL with 14 turnovers, including 11 interceptions.
2. Rivers overflowing with mistakes: Chargers coach Norv Turner summed it up the best: QB Philip Rivers is pressing. Rivers leads the NFL with 14 turnovers, including 11 interceptions. Some of the blame has to go to a receiving corps that is not getting clear separation from defenders. Rivers, like Flacco, is holding onto the ball longer and making more mistakes. The best stat to sum that up is Rivers' numbers against defenses rushing four or fewer players. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rivers, while completing 67 percent of his throws, has also thrown seven interceptions and has been sacked 11 times when he's not getting blitzed. His decision-making is affected to such a point that his Total QBR against four or fewer rushers is 55.3, ranking 21st in the league. On Sunday, he will go into a shootout against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and Rivers can't afford to lose possessions because of turnovers.

3. Bears' Cover 2 versus the hard-to-cover Michael Vick: In December 2010, the Bears' defense did a great job of containing Eagles QB Michael Vick with their Cover 2 scheme. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher gave Vick plenty of problems while the Bears jumped to a 31-13 lead by the fourth quarter. Vick cut the lead to five, but the Bears showed they had a read on Vick and the Eagles' offense. Over the past two games, the Eagles have watched Vick thrive with three-step drops while the Eagles' defense is getting more comfortable with Juan Castillo's scheme. Lovie Smith has won three of his past four games against Andy Reid, who can't afford to let the Eagles fall to 3-5.

4. Will the Giants stand tall? On paper, it would appear the Giants are running away with the NFC East. They're 5-2 with a two-game lead over the Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles. Quietly, Eli Manning is having his best start to a season. He has completed 64.7 percent of his passes and is averaging 303.9 passing yards per game. Even better, he's tied with Alex Smith of the 49ers for the league lead in fourth-quarter comebacks (three). But lost behind the Giants' fast start is the fact they have won five games against the league's easiest opening schedule. The Giants' first seven opponents are a combined 15-34 and the next-closest team to the Giants' .306 opponents' winning percentage are the Packers at .385. The 5-2 Bills were the only team the Giants faced that has a winning record. Starting with Sunday's visit to the New England Patriots, the Giants play the league's toughest finishing schedule (a .609 combined opponents' winning percentage). In the next five weeks, the Giants face the Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Saints and Packers, teams with a combined record of 26-10. At the very least, the Giants need to go at least 2-3 in this five-game stretch.

5. Could Tebow Time be over this quickly? Broncos coach John Fox said Tim Tebow is the Broncos' quarterback for this week's game against the Oakland Raiders, but how long will he go with a quarterback who is sacked six to seven times a start and completes only 46.1 percent of his passes? Sunday's game against the Raiders is Tebow's third start of the season and sixth start of his young career, but Tebow looks worse as a quarterback, not better. What makes this matchup tricky for Tebow is the Raiders' defensive line. On Sunday, the Lions stacked the line of scrimmage and tried to force Tebow to pass. Fortunately for Tebow, the Raiders aren't a blitzing team. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Tebow has completed a league-low 23.1 passes when at least five defenders rushed the quarterback. He has more sacks taken (seven) against the blitz than completions (six). Tebow's completing 50 percent of his passes from the pocket, second worst in the league. The Raiders' defensive line figures to bully the Broncos' offensive line, which would leave an extra defender in coverage trying to intercept or deflect pass attempts.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/Gary WiepertRyan Fitzpatrick and the Bills face a difficult stretch in their schedule.
6. Are the Bills legitimately an AFC East playoff contender? The Bills won a home game against the Patriots. Ryan Fitzpatrick earned a six-year contract extension worth $9.833 million a year. The Bills are 5-2 against the sixth-toughest schedule in the NFL. But Sunday's game against the Jets is a very serious test. A win by the Bills keeps them in contention. A loss, though, could cause a serious fade. After the Jets game, the Bills have a three-game road trip that includes stops in Dallas, Miami and the Jets. The Bills thought they were a playoff team a few years ago after a start against an easy schedule. The Jets came to Buffalo and gave Bills opponents a scouting report on how to shut down their offense. The Jets have won five of their last six games against the Bills.

7. The schedule gets tougher: The Bengals have navigated through the league's third-easiest opening schedule (.392) with a 5-2 record even though they have a rookie, Andy Dalton, running the offense. The next three games are going to put the Bengals' season in perspective. They visit a 4-3 Titans team that is struggling to find a running game even after giving Chris Johnson $13 million a season. After that, the Bengals play the Ravens and then the Steelers in what will be a four-game swing through the AFC North. Because the Bengals face the possibility of being swept by the Steelers and the Ravens, they need to notch as many nondivision wins as they can. If the Bengals can't win against the Ravens and Steelers, they may go 2-4 or 1-5 in the division, and thus to get over .500, they would have to go 7-3 or 8-2 in nondivisional games (they're 4-2 in those games so far).

8. Jim Harbaugh's pre-Thanksgiving feast: The 49ers' magic number for winning the NFC West is six, giving them a chance to clinch over the next three weeks before a Thanksgiving night showdown against coach Jim Harbaugh's brother, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers head to Washington to face the Redskins with a four-game lead over the Seahawks, who play in Dallas with a banged-up Tarvaris Jackson. The Redskins are down five offensive starters and are using John Beck at quarterback. The Redskins are averaging only 16.6 points a game but have scored only 33 in the three weeks since accumulating the injuries. Before the season, most experts thought the Rams and Cardinals, who acquired Kevin Kolb in a trade from the Eagles, would be the top two teams in the NFC West. The Rams travel to Arizona on Sunday to determine which team is the worst in the division. Neither team knows if it will have its starting quarterback. Kolb has turf toe and a midfoot sprain. Bradford has missed two games with a high ankle sprain.

[+] EnlargePeyton Hillis
Kyle Terada/US PresswirePeyton Hillis' injury has Cleveland scrambling to find a running game.
9. Browns turn black and blue in backfield: Browns coach Pat Shurmur knows the importance of a running game, particularly from his brief stint as offensive coordinator of the Steven Jackson-led St. Louis Rams. The Browns felt good about the season because they had Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and unrestricted free agent signing Brandon Jackson. But Jackson was lost for the season with a toe injury, Hillis will miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury and Hardesty tore a calf muscle and will be out a few weeks. That leaves the Browns with Chris Ogbonnaya, the former Texans fourth-string halfback who spent most of the season on the practice squad. The Texans were so deep at running back that they let Steve Slaton go to Miami in a waiver claim and lost Ogbonnaya off their practice squad when the Browns were desperate. If the Texans can't outrun the Browns with Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward, they have no business making a run for the playoffs in the AFC South.

10. Andrew Luck Watch: The only two remaining winless teams are the 0-7 Miami Dolphins and 0-8 Indianapolis Colts. We'll know in the next two weeks which of the two teams has the best chance to be in position to draft Andrew Luck with the first pick. On Sunday, the Dolphins visit the Chiefs, which might be a tough game to win, but they have a winnable home game Nov. 13 against the Redskins. The Colts don't figure to win this week against the Falcons, but they have a decent chance to win Nov. 13 in a home game against a Jaguars team that has rookie Blaine Gabbert at quarterback and is averaging only 12.3 points a game.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer