It may be a little early to start talking Ravens-Steelers, but listening to the so-called experts and prognosticators compare and preview the two AFC North powerhouses already has me looking forward to when the teams play this season. Fans of one of the best rivalries in all of sports will have to wait until November 18 for the teams to meet at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. However, in a sick twist of NFL scheduling fate and most assuredly before the wounds have healed from the first contest, the bitter rivals will meet again just two weeks later in Baltimore.

Many of the so-called experts are picking the Steelers over the Ravens to win the division this season, which has Ravens fans shaking their heads in disbelief, myself being one of them. Maybe the experts are still in shock over what happened last January in Denver, when Tim Tebow sent the Steelers home with a stunning playoff loss. Maybe these experts actually believe the Steelers are a better team this season.

Afterall, the Steelers have not had consecutive losing seasons since 1998 and 1999. Since 1996, Pittsburgh has missed the post season just five times. Three of them came in consecutive years from 98-00. Baltimore may own the NFL’s longest current playoff at four straight seasons, but the Steelers have been to the playoffs in six of the last eight seasons and are 2-1 in Super Bowls since 2005.

I get it, it is hard to imagine the Steelers on a downward trend for a few seasons, especially since the last time it actually happened Bill Clinton was halfway through his second term. What makes comparing these two AFC powerhouses even more difficult is the fact that they are built identically on the field and off it.

Both were built on stout defenses that feature All-Pro linebackers and all-world safeties. Both have quarterbacks from a small school that has come into the league and played much above what was expected of them when they were drafted. The cities and their fans are similar, more than each would care to admit. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both cities that sit on the water, rose to economic prominence through the industrial age, almost died with its decline. Each utilized the waterfront to revitalize downtown, adding tourism as a measure of replacement for the loss of industrial income.

[caption id="attachment_116" align="alignright" width="275" caption="The "Burgh" at night"][/caption]

Both are diehards about “Dem Ravens Hon” and the “Stillerrs”. That is why it is never too early to talk Steelers-Ravens football and over the next three days leading up to the opening of the preseason for each team, I will compare the two teams and tell you why your buying fool’s gold if you honestly think the Steelers will finish ahead of the Ravens this year.

For the sake of fact backing, The Ravens are far better equipped to finish atop the AFC North than Pittsburgh this season. Many of these experts point to the age of both defenses as a point of major contention for both teams.

Jamison Hensley, who spent 11 years as the Ravens beat writer and is now the lead blogger for ESPN on all things concerning the AFC North, recently said on the Scott Van Pelt radio show that, “ When you have a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, and a defense that should still be on top whether they are old or not, the Steelers are the team to beat in this division”.

So, let’s begin right there with Big Ben, and Joe Flacco, and compare the offenses of both teams.

If having a healthy Big Ben is the key part to the Steelers engine, than the Steelers are in trouble. In a division where a tiebreaker has been needed to decide the North champion four times since 2005, it is important to have your franchise quarterback under center for all 16 games. Roethlisberger has already admitted that he is currently battling several nagging injuries.

He admitted last week that he has a slight tear of the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, and this past Saturday, twisted the same ankle that he injured last season, causing him to miss time, or play ineffectively when the Steelers needed him most at the end of last season. He sat out Sunday’s practice as a precaution but Roethlisberger, whether it has been for suspension or injury, has played just 16 games once in his career. That was back in 2008, and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

Keeping the Steelers quarterback on the field and upright was a major priority this past off-season for Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert.

Staying with the theme of rebuilding their once proud and nasty mean offensive line, Pittsburgh selected two very good “O” linemen with their first two picks in April’s draft. Eventually, guard David DeCastro (24th overall) and tackle Mike Adams (56th overall) will team up with super center Maurkice Pouncey to form one of the best young offensive lines in  the NFL, but it may not be this season, and that could  be an issue with a hurting Big Ben.

Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler is good at what he does, but this project will take time. Last year’s starting right tackle, Willie Colon, has moved inside to left guard. With Colon moving to LG and a rookie at RG, third year center Maurkice Pouncey will need to be a teaching machine during the heat of battle. It is hard to imagine Mike Tomlin would start two rookies on the same side of the offensive line, so look for Mike Adams to play left tackle while Marcus Gilbert is on the right. The problem is, if Adams struggles with his strength, which is possible considering he was only able to do 19 reps at this year's NFL Combine, a mark that is well below expectations for a left tackle in the NFL, then the Steelers will be forced to change their line more than they wanted to during camp. A lack of continuity for whatever reason has led to Ben Roethlisberger taking a beating during the past few seasons. You can bet any changes the Steelers make will be done early in camp.

[caption id="attachment_121" align="alignleft" width="275" caption="McKinnie, Oher and Yanda"][/caption]

The Ravens offensive line is the biggest question mark with the 2012 roster. If we were basing the division prediction on which team had the better unit, the Steelers would probably get the nod. The uncertainty of Bryant McKinnie’s health, both mental and physical, could become an obstacle at the left tackle spot for the Ravens this season. With center Matt Birk aging one week every two days, and the Ravens current void at left guard following the departure of Ben Grubbs to the Saints, expect GM Ozzie Newsome to be active on the waiver wire as cuts are made this summer. Newsome signed McKinnie as free agent late last August, and then signed veteran Pro-Bowl center Andre Gurode in early September.

Clearly, the Ravens have the edge in the backfield with fifth year Pro-Bowl running back, Ray Rice. Having recently signed a five-year $40 million contract, the former Rutgers star was in camp on time and ready to go. Rice is starting to build an impressive resume in the NFL having earned his second Pro Bowl trip in four years last season. With a career-high 2,068 yards, Rice led the NFL in yards from scrimmage. He scored a franchise-record 15 TDs (12 rushing and 3 receiving) as well as rushing for a career-high 1,364 yards. As one of the top all-around backs in the league, Rice led the team with 76 receptions for a career-high 704 yards last season. The little back with great cut back vision became the second player in NFL history (Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk - four times from 1998-2001) to register at least 1,200 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards in multiple seasons.

The Steelers work on the offensive line suggests they would like to return to the days of the ground and pound attack. This may also save some wear and tear on their quarterback, but what former KC Chiefs head coach, and new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley does is a mystery that will likely only be answered on game days.  Pittsburgh was 14th in the NFL last year, averaging 119 yards a game on the ground. Many believe Haley is going to balance the attack better in 12’.  The Steelers Rashard Mendenhall is currently on the PUP list as he recovers from an ACL injury he suffered in the regular season finale last year. Many believe he may play again this season, but for now, the job belongs to Isaac Redman. The six-foot 230-pound Bowie State product has just 162 regular season career carries for 726 yards and three touchdowns, but rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries during the Steelers playoff loss to Denver last January.

Neither the Steelers nor Ravens have proven depth behind Rice and Redman but a pair of Georgia Tech draftees could make all of the difference if Redman or Rice goes down this season.

If Redman should falter, the Steelers may turn to Jonathan Dwyer, and the Ravens Anthony Allen . Dwyer was a sixth round selection from the Yellow Jackets in 2009 and Allen was chosen by the Ravens in the seventh round of the 2011 draft.

Both teams also have promising draft choices from April’s draft. The Steelers selected a multi-purpose back when they chose the fast and talented Chris Rainey from Florida. Rainey electrified the Steelers faithful during a Friday night practice recently. Every time Rainey touched the ball, he hit the hole hard and gained five or more yards per carry, one time breaking a 15-yard run as defenders struggled to find the 5-8, 178-pounder with 4.3 speed.

For the purple and black, it could be Temple’s Bernard Pierce. The former Owl is a good-sized back with explosion and quickness. Pierce ran for 1,328 yards and 25 touchdowns in only 10 games last season for the Owls.  For now, the exact running back order is Ray Rice, Anthony Allen, Damien Berry, Bernard Pierce and Bobby Rainey. However, according to the Ravens web site “don’t believe what you read,” cautions Ravens site writer John Eisenberg. “Pierce, as a third-round draft pick, is the favorite, and Rainey, an undrafted rookie, is turning heads. This is wide open.”

[caption id="attachment_123" align="alignleft" width="251" caption="One doesn't have his money just yet"][/caption]

The wide receiving corps is not an automatic check mark to the Steelers just because they have a great young trio of wide outs. In fact, I would argue the Ravens have the better overall unit when you consider the tight ends.  The Steelers trimmed a lot of age off their roster this past off-season. Nevertheless, age also means experience and leadership and no player exemplified both more than the Steelers all-time leading receiver Hines Ward did.

Pittsburgh will miss Ward immensely, both on and off the field. With that said, QB Ben Roethlisberger is as blessed as any QB in the NFL with his trio of speedy young receivers. That is if they are all actually healthy and on the field at the same time.

Antonio Brown had a breakout season in 2011. Brown made the Pro Bowl after becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 1,000 receiving yards and at least 1,000 return yards (1,062). He finished second on the team to Mike Wallace with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards. Brown, voted Pittsburgh's most valuable player by teammates last season, was entering the final season of the three-year contract he signed when he was drafted.  He would have been eligible for restricted free agency after this season, but the Steelers took care of that this past Friday when they signed him to five-year contract extension. His good friend, and current camp no-show, Mike Wallace, does not seem to get the principal that the Steelers are not willing to negotiate as long as he is absent from the Latrobe Pennsylvania facilities.

Currently, there are no contract talks between the two sides. Wallace is a restricted free agent, and is one of two unsigned players who is absent (i.e., not a holdout) from his team's training camp. Wallace wants a long-term deal to replace his non-guaranteed tender worth $2.742 million, and he skipped the Steelers' OTAs, minicamp and so far, every practice of training camp.

Last season Wallace had 1,193 yards on 72 receptions and eight touchdowns. His absence hurts the Steelers as he and Brown were slated to be the starting wideouts in a new system this year.

Looking to capitalize on the Wallace absence is Emanuel Sanders.  The third young speedy wide receiver of the future in Pittsburgh battled a nagging foot injury he incurred when he broke his right foot during the February 2011 Super Bowl at the end of his rookie season. Later that offseason — one in which there was no minicamp or OTAs due to the lockout — Sanders had surgery on the left foot.

[caption id="attachment_124" align="alignleft" width="273" caption="Ward no longer around to mentor to Wallace and Brown"][/caption]

Sanders missed five games for the Steelers due to injury and caught only 22 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. However, Sanders will be looking to build on his team-high six receptions for a career-high 81 yards in Pittsburgh’s wild-card playoff loss in Denver. With Hines Ward retired and Wallace’s absence from camp, Sanders could be this year’s version of Antonio Brown, if he can stay healthy.

Although Hines Ward is gone, the Steelers still have a veteran presence in former NY Jet, Jericho Cotchery. Perhaps the biggest move the Steelers made in free agency this off-season was re- signing Cotchery. In his first season with the Steelers, Cotchery caught 16 passes, his lowest total since his 2004 rookie season. But Cotchery made an impact in the second half of the season when Ward’s production dropped and he was being squeezed out of the offense. In the final eight games, Cotchery had 15 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

Heath Miller is one of the most reliable tight ends in the NFL and his blocking has been a tremendous help to a much-maligned offensive line during the past couple of seasons. Since catching six touchdowns in 2009 and earning his first Pro-Bowl appearance, Miller has just four TD’s during the past two seasons.

The Ravens receiving corps may be the best unit on the team this season. From Anquan Boldin to LaQuan Williams, the Ravens can burn you with speed and beat you consistently with more than one option underneath. The Ravens passing game may be the substitute for what, if anything actually ails the so-called aging defense.

Matching up against good man-to-man defenses has been a big problem for the Ravens offense at times during the past few seasons. Ravens receivers have struggled to get separation against speedy corners, and a big reason why they were not playing the Giants in Indianapolis last February. During the AFC Championship game, Anquan Boldin was covered by Julian Edelman, a wide receiver by trade, and simply could not get free during some crucial spots. Despite catching six balls, for 101-yards (one-play 37-yards) Boldin would be the first tell you they weren’t exactly the most productive yards at the most productive time.

The issue of failed separation has caused Flacco to hold the ball until either Ray Rice or one of his tight ends worked open. Articles were written and fans lit up switchboards with criticism of Flacco for taking sacks and holding the ball. Ozzie Newsome stepped in last April and started rebuilding the receiving corps. He drafted the blazing Torrey Smith from nearby Maryland, and the continued to build by subtraction.

Newsome cut the top two pass catchers in Ravens history immediately following the lockout in TE Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. Not a popular move at the time as many felt Flacco would struggle mightily without Mason, his favorite target. However, and as he usually does, Newsome proved to be a Prophet, as Heap missed time last season with injuries and was a non-factor in Arizona. Derrick Mason played for two teams and had just 19 receptions for 179 yards total last season, before calling it quits and retiring a Raven before the start of camp this year.

While both could still catch the ball, neither could separate and that meant that with Anquan Boldin, the Ravens would have millions tied up in slow possession receivers.

[caption id="attachment_125" align="alignleft" width="302" caption="Smith with a TD in AFC Title game"][/caption]

Torrey Smith battled the drops early but rebounded to have a great rookie campaign. His exceptional speed on deep routes led to him finishing third in the NFL in receiving yards by a rookie. He set Ravens rookies records posting Ravens rookie records in catches (50), receiving yards (841) and touchdowns (7). According to many observers, Smith looks great at camp this year and has worked on his short routes and crossing patterns, making him a threat on all routes.

Ozzie Newsom jumped all over Jacoby Jones once the Texans cut him this past spring.  Jones has a great chance to start and will pull coverage away from slot receiver Anquan Boldin as well as tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. This will open up the middle of the field for Joe Flacco, and this doesn’t even include what could be considered the best screen game in the league with Ray Rice coming out of the backfield. LaQuan Williams, who was signed as an undrafted free agent last summer, also from Maryland, began to make big catches for the Ravens as the season wore on. He will play a larger role this year as Cam Cameron trots out more multiple receiver sets. His two catches for 28 yards in Pittsburgh last November were huge for the Ravens.

The Ravens are also counting on speed from Miami product Tommy Streeter. Streeter spent time with fellow Hurricane alum Ray Lewis after the draft as the future Hall Of Fame linebacker worked out and prepared the former Canes receiver for life in the NFL.

Tightends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are a poor man’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Ok, maybe poverty man’s Gronk and Hernandez. The Pats duo had 1,244 more receiving yards, as well as 10 more touchdowns combined last season, but the Ravens didn’t miss Heap last year. All they wanted to do was replace Heaps average numbers since Flacco took over under center in Baltimore back in 2008. Heap averaged 532-yards and five touchdowns per season with Joe Cool in Baltimore.

Last season, Dickson and Pitta combined to catch 94 passes for 933-yards and eight touchdowns, which was more yards and touchdowns than Heap ever posted in any single season while in Baltimore. Mission accomplished and Pitta, who is out for the preseason with a broken hand, became a very popular target for Flacco during the process.

This next part will get the blood boiling and cause the Steelers fans to take a big swig of their warm Iron City sitting on the nightstand.

Joe Flacco is poised to have a better season than his one-time nemesis, Ben Roethlisberger. With Roethlisberger having a new offensive coordinator, and already battling injuries, it is hard to imagine a focused and sharp Flacco will not have the breakout season everyone is expecting.

Flacco’s accomplishments are already building. The Ravens’ all-time leading passer in yards (13,816), TD passes (80), and completions (1,190) has more regular season wins (44) than any starting quarterback in his first four years than any QB in NFL history. His 73 NFL starts (including playoffs) are the most to begin a career by a QB in NFL history, which has produced 49 total wins in these contests.

Flacco is the only starting quarterback in NFL history (since the 1970 merger) to reach the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and despite entering training camp without the contract extension he desired this offseason, seems poised to make it five.

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Arguments are building in favor of Flacco becoming a top tier QB in the NFL. Last season Eli Manning was forced into saying, he was an elite QB. This season, Flacco said it. I like Joe’s chances and it didn’t work out so badly for old Eli either.  I spent several days watching five games from last season and although Flacco’s numbers took a bit of a slide in 2011, you could see the game start to slow down for him. When that happens, quarterbacks that possess the talent he has, with the talent he plays alongside, eventually explode onto the scene and this season is eventually for Flacco and the Ravens.

Many say the true measure of a QB is his ability to win in the postseason. Flacco is 5-4 all-time during the postseason, posting a road playoff victory in each of his first four trips to the playoffs. If Lee Evans holds onto the football in New England, Flacco and the Ravens would have played in the Super Bowl last season.

Roethlisberger will not give up the heavyweight title so easily. Big Ben is coming off another Pro-Bowl season in which he passed for 4,077 yards and 21 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions. He posted a 90.1 QB rating and his completion percentage of 63.2 was second best in the AFC behind only Tom Brady. Roethlisberger became just the fourth QB to win 80 games in the Super Bowl era in 113 or fewer starts, and prior to last season owned the Ravens and Joe Flacco.

During his career, including the playoffs, Roethlisberger is 9-5 with 21 touchdowns. Flacco had never beaten Big Ben until the Ravens destroyed the Steelers 35-7 in the season’s first game last year. Flacco also won the rematch at Heinz Field as he led the Ravens on a 90-yard drive with less than two minutes remaining, throwing the game winner to Torrey Smith. In fact, Flacco is now 2-0 vs. the Steelers in his last two games at Heinz Field during the regular season, winning both with last minute touchdown drives. Many experts want to throw the Cincinnati Bengals into this conversation in terms of which team will dominant the AFC North this season, but it is becoming more likely that the division will come down to Flacco vs. Roethlisberger, and which of the defenses superstars shows their age the least.

While the Steelers have a slight edge on the offensive line heading into the season I like the Ravens offense to excel more as unit this season.

[caption id="attachment_128" align="alignleft" width="262" caption="Flacco and Caldwell"][/caption]

For my money, I will take the five-year continuity of Cam Cameron, and Joe Flacco as well as the improved  and all present at training camp receiving corps of the Ravens over a still banged up Big Ben, young and inexperienced offensive line, absent superstar wide receiver and a new offensive coordinator.

If you factor in the cool relationship between Todd Haley and Big Ben, then you have to agree that this pot is ripe for boiling over with a little locker room turmoil. Haley is notoriously stubborn and it is likely that he and Roethlisberger will clash as some point this season.

Roethlisberger was irked when Haley, who wasn’t exactly known as a player-friendly coach when he was in KC, failed to contact him after he was hired. Two weeks after Haley hired Ben told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that Haley still hadn’t contacted him. Roethlisberger also made it clear he was not happy with the decision not to keep former O.C. Bruce Arians.

[caption id="attachment_136" align="alignleft" width="301" caption="BIG BEN AND NEW OC TODD HALEY"][/caption]

When Haley was announced as the new hire, he said, “I've gotten a lot of calls and texts and emails from people around the league, both good and bad about him. Everybody has an opinion, as we all know, and they're letting me know what their interaction with him was -- good, bad and indifferent. I've heard a lot of things and I'm looking forward to meeting him and forming my own opinion."

Joe Flacco once again has a QB coach, and was in Roethlisberger’s shoes, sort of, two seasons ago when Joe Cool lost his cool to the media after he lost his QB coach, Jim Zorn.

Zorn was not retained following the 2010 season, and Flacco was not happy about that. Flacco liked Zorn and liked what he was learning. The numbers supported Joe’s claim and following a dip in his stats last season, the Ravens brought in former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell to stand by Flacco’s side this season as his new mentor.

Before becoming Colts' head coach, Caldwell was the team's quarterback coach for seven seasons. During that span, Manning won three of his four NFL MVP awards, produced league highs in completions (2,482), completion percentage (66.5), passing yards (29,210), passing touchdowns (222) and passer rating (100.5).

In 2004, Manning threw for a career-high 49 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, while setting a career-high 121.1 quarterback back rating. While I would be silly to say that Flacco can do the same, he is likely to become the team’s first 4,000-yard passer since Vinny Testaverde and first since Testaverde to throw for at least 30 touchdowns. Vinny threw for 4,177 yards and 33 touchdowns when the Ravens arrived in 1996.

If Flacco does that, the Ravens will more than likely be playing in New Orleans on the first Sunday in February. Check back later in the week for the second part of the Ravens-Steelers breakdown. I will tell you why the Steelers defense is old and the Ravens, even without Terrell Suggs will be a top five  unite that isn’t defense isn’t old and but much younger, quicker and improved this season.

[caption id="attachment_129" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Flacco vs. Ryan Thursday night"][/caption]

On Thursday, I will tell you why the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debate is dead. I will also tell you which battles to watch for during the game as head coach John Harbaugh and his staff try to find the players that can play “The Raven Way” during their opening preseason game vs. the Falcons Th

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