Bend But Don’t Break: Steelers-Ravens

Ed Reed is a mixed bag these days: He hasn’t been able to tackle properly in years, and when he gambles he leaves the secondary out to dry. But he also perfectly represents the Ravens defense, a magical unit that in spite of well-publicized failings has continued to excel in key statistical areas.

I tend to enjoy watching football games by myself. I’ve often wondered why this is, and recently I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to watch football games alone in the same way that people might want to read a letter from an ex away from prying eyes, or might want to send up an especially personal prayer in the quiet of their own bedroom, or just generally might want to be told important news, however good or bad, in such a way that their minds and hearts aren’t out in the open for everyone to observe. Basically, I care so much about football that I prefer to watch it alone because whatever reaction I have is almost certain to make me look wild and unstable to anyone who should see. It is, I guess, an experience so personal and spiritual that I am at once protective of it and embarrassed by it. Football is the one thing that my father and I are equally passionate about, but even we watch Ravens games on separate floors when I visit my parents in Baltimore.

So, when I do watch football with other people, it is usually because on that particular game day, I’m just not feeling up to the emotional toll that I know is coming. When other people are around me, I can joke, I can distract myself, I can pretend–both to others and to myself–that I am not overly invested in the outcome of every single play and every single drive. I did that on Sunday when the Ravens played the Steelers in Pittsburgh. I watched the game with five other people in my living room because I was sick to my stomach knowing that, in all likelihood, another ugly, frustrating, curse-inducing slugfest was about to happen. (I was right.) I didn’t take notes, I didn’t log into my usual Ravens forum to chat/scream with board members about live unfoldings; I just sat in a chair, occasionally wakened from my self-induced daze to let out an instinctive, primal scream when I saw Byron Leftwich get walloped, which frightened my new British roommate who watched this strange and violent American pastime with a morbid curiosity. As a result, I remember most of the game as though it happened about two years ago.

Three quicker takeaways:

1) The Steelers’ offensive line gets away with a RIDONKULOUS amount of holding. Future opponents of Pittsburgh, you have been warned: Prepare to be tackled at the feet of Leftwich/Batch/Aortic Ben and for no flag to be thrown.

2) Ed Reed’s suspension for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Emmanuel Sanders was properly rescinded. Sanders and Reed are roughly the same height, and in about one second both decided to lower their heads. Physics and intent should play a part in fines and suspensions.

3) I don’t know quite how to describe those hideous and bizarre throwbacks the Steelers insist on wearing, but here are some things that are striped: zebras, candy canes, prison outfits, Footlocker employees, Ronald McDonald’s socks. And here are some things that are yellow: urine, bananas, melted butter, jaundiced eyeballs, various fats as organic things decompose. Have at it, dear readers.

I took away three things. The first is that, as I and everyone else in the sportosphere have noted, the Ravens are not your typical 8-2 team. That inflated record, a thing so sterling and shiny that it boggles my mind (if the Ravens have a record that isn’t 9-7 or 10-6, I am confused and think on my blessings), exists in spite of many flaws: The offense is only dangerous and sensible when it plays at home, and the defense is swiss cheese in between the 20s. The second thing I realized is that our special teams unit finally looks like something overseen by a head coach who was a special teams guru for nine years before he came to Baltimore: rookie Justin Tucker is the new Matt Stover (a miss in the open end of Heinz Field is common even for veterans; he is forgiven), and Jacoby Jones, a signing I very publicly lambasted some months ago, has morphed into the Devin Hester of the AFC, on Sunday becoming the first player ever to score on two touchdowns longer than 105 yards–and doing it in five games. If Jones hadn’t scored on that punt return, the Ravens, unthinkably, might have lost to the Steelers even as Big Ben sat on the bench with his arm in a sling. Counting the Cowboys game, that marks the second time this season that Jones has single-handedly saved us. (Counting just about every game, that marks the umpteenth time he has proven he’s the best dancer in the NFL.)

But the third thing I realized is that despite the popular (and not inaccurate) narrative that the 2012 Ravens are fielding a defense starkly inferior to what the football world is used to, the Ravens are now exemplars of the ability to “bend but not break.” We rank 25th in yards given up per game (382.3); however, we are ninth in opponent points per game (20.6), fourth in touchdowns surrendered (19), third in recovered fumbles (10), ninth in interceptions (11), and first in opponent redzone scoring percentage (35). Every year since 2008, the Ravens have been in the Top 10 in opponent points per game and touchdowns surrendered, and every year since 2004 we’ve been in the Top 10 in opponent redzone scoring percentage. For four of the past five years, we’ve been in the top ten in interceptions logged and fumbles recovered.

It appears, then, that some of that old Ravens magic is still in the air, possibly engrained in Baltimore’s DNA, undeterable by changes in personnel, packages, coordinators or opponents. It is this ability to conjure big stops and timely turnovers that’s helped us reach eight wins in 10 weeks, a record that all but two teams right now would take in a heartbeat. Our defense ain’t pretty, but with the game more offense-driven than ever, it is following a winning formula. Just ask the Packers or Saints.

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