The struggling Stillers get no help at all from the schedule makers, with their first test being a stern one against Poe's Crows, a team seemingly on the verge of finally putting it all together and making a run at a playoff berth.
Ordinarily, one would think that a home game would spur the Black and Gold to victory. However, this is a team that won all of 2 home games last season, and the Pittsburgh faithful are becoming more incensed and impatient with this stumbling, overly-sloppy football team. A slow start, especially with the bumbling offense, could easily take the crowd out of the game and allow then Woodpecker's to seize the initiative.
It's also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a season opener will, in and of itself, be enough to push and spur this team on to victory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since '94, Cowher's teams have either been thoroughly embarrassed on opening day, or they've barely squeaked by marginal competition, as follows:
'94: Thoroughly whipped and embarrassed in every phase of the game by Dallas. O'Donnell & the entire offense was totally bewildered by Dallas' defense.
'95: Barely squeaked by a weak, soft Lions team at 3 Rivers, needing a FG to pull the game out in OT.
'96: At Jax, the entire team looked sluggish and ill-prepared, and lost to a weak 2nd year team.
'97: Thoroughly whipped and embarrassed in every phase of the game by Dallas. Aikman literally had 6-8 seconds to stand unfettered in the pocket, and Stewart & the entire offense were totally unprepared and befuddled by the Cryboy defense.
'98: Against a very weak Raven team, the entire team struggled and sputtered, and only the Raven's ineptitude, such as missed FGs and 2 poor special-teams long-snaps, allowed us to win.
'99: After the opening-day laugher over junior-varsity Cleve, the team struggled and stunk against Baltimore -- QB'd by Scott Mitchell & Stoney Case -- and barely won the game on a last-second field goal.
* When the Woodpeckers have the ball, they now have a fair amount of varied options, as opposed to the past, when their offense resembled, well, the Stillers. Banks is the starting QB, and his notorious fumble problems aside, he ended '99 in superb fashion. He is equipped with a solid corps of ball catchers, including Quadry Ismail, who had one of the greatest receiving days in NFL history last year vs. Pgh., and rookie 1st rounder Travis Taylor. Where the Ravens might really hurt the Stillers is at TE, with 2 new TEs of all pro caliber in Sharpe and Coates. The Ravens may use a lot of 2-TE sets, and try to create mismatches with these skilled TEs. One TE or 2-TE sets -- either way, if the clumsy Jason Gildon is going to be tasked to cover either of these men, it will be a gross mismatch and easy pickins for Banks to play pitch-and-catch with wide open TEs. Kirk and Flowers will hopefully be assigned to these TEs, rather than Gildon. The Raven ground attack has some promise, with heralded rookie Jamal Lewis making his pro debut. Priest Holmes won't be sitting around reciting the rosary or hearing confessions; he'll likely get double-digit carries in a platoon with Lewis. The Priest is no Judas, as he gashed the Stillers badly last year and galloped for well over 100 yards in the one meeting, on less than 20 carries. Assume that Billick and his staff will have little interest in running the ball up the gut. Balt. is not very strong in the middle of their OL, and the Raven staff has surely seen the quality preseason effectiveness of the Kimo-Kirk-Earl triangle. Rather, the Crows will look to run the ball off-tackle and around end, where the Stillers will be starting a greenhorn DE (Aaron Smith), and where Gildon will provide his typical malleability in politely moving where ever the Ravens' RT Harry Swayne, FB Sam Gash, or the TE wish to move him. Knowing Banks' buttery fingers, the Stillers would like to get pressure on him, but that pressure will be difficult to come by, unless heavy blitzes create some quick penetration. Swayne will have no problem whatsoever dominating Gildon, and Ogden is one of the AFC's premier LTs who should be able to most often stave off Porter.
* When the Stillers have the ball, Gilbride will presumably play the conservative "establish the run" kind of offense, by running Bettis between the tackles and throwing some short stuff. The problem here, is that the Raven defensive line, coupled with their LBs, is simply too dominant to be pushed around by the Stillers. Burnett, Adams, and McCrary are all top-notch linemen who combine power and speed. Gilbride's infamous "Whaleshit Counter" (which he actually inherited from Sherman) will be engulfed by these rugged linemen. The LB corps of Sharper, Boulware, and Lewis is without peer. Former Stiller Coach Marv Lewis will have these LBs shooting gaps, and they'll continually clog up the ground game with 8-man fronts & run-blitzing. Three things can be done to counter this heavy run-blitzing -- toss sweeps to a fleet tailback like Huntley or Amoz, or hitting the TE with quick 3-step pop passes, or spreading the formation by using 3 or 4 WRs, in which the defense MUST move some of their defenders OUT of "the box" and out wide, thus creating some room to run. Problem is, Gilbride is too much of a dullard to be prepared for the kind of defense we'll face on Sunday, so it's gonna be ugly. Gilbride will probably pull several screen plays out of his grab bag for this game, but that, too, will be a fiasco. Baltimore's defense, especially its LBs, are simply too quick, fast, and instinctive for screen plays to work with much effectiveness. Even inserting Stewart into the game will have minimal effectiveness, as All-World Ray Lewis will be assigned to spy on and follow Stewart where ever he goes. And because the Ravens know that DE Burnett or McCrary are good enough to give rookie RT Marvell Smith fits, they will expect Bruener or Wittman to give Smitty plenty of help, which will negate Stiller options (albeit slowpoked) in the passing game. Bottom line is that this offense couldn't move the ball against the vanilla defenses it mostly saw in preseason, so it's implausible that they'll suddenly march up and down the field against not only 1 of the best defenses in the NFL, but also one that uses heavy doses of blitzes and elaborate disguises. Expect Josh Miller to have a sore leg by day's end. The only chance the Stillers have of moving the ball with any kind of frequency is if they throw the ball downfield (ie, at or further than 15 yards) with some degree of success. A day that Stewart made famous the last 2 seasons -- 14-for-27 for 162 yards -- will all but assure defeat. Barring anything bizarre like 7 Raven turnovers, Graham needs to throw for a good 230 yards, and no more than 1 INT, if this team is going to have a chance at winning.
Expect the Ravens defense to not only stuff the Stillers offense, but also create offense for the Ravens. Either thru an INT or a fumble off a sack, as well as forcing a punt with Josh's back near the goal line, the Raven defense should help provide no less than 10 points for their team.
Combine all of the above, along with Cowher's perennial inability to prepare his team adequately for the season opener and the indecisiveness that prohibited the starting QB (Graham) from being named the starter until 6 days prior to this game, and you have all the making of a pretty good whipping. Poe's Crows will administer the whipping, leaving Cowher moaning "nevermore" & wondering why he couldn't have had the bye week this week. Final score: 23-13 Ravens.
The Still Mill