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11-26-2006, 07:25 AM
Collier: There's a thick line between Steelers and Ravens
21 slots of separation on the old takeaway-giveaway continuum represents all of the known universe
Sunday, November 26, 2006

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Football being said (and said and said and said) to be a game of inches, the 3 5/8 inches separating Baltimore from Pittsburgh on Page 1 of the NFL's weekly 85-page statistical report must represent, if not the longest 3 5/8 inches in the pro game, at least its greatest theoretical distance.

That 3 5/8 inches, the exact distance by which the Ravens and Steelers are separated on the silently omniscient takeaways/giveaways table, is all the data range it takes to distinguish the best from the worst, the league's baddest ball hawks from its goofiest givers of gratuitous gifts.

As the noted AFC North Division rivals prepare for this afternoon's chilling episode inside Large Impersonal Financial Institution Stadium, no one is giving the football away more than Bill Cowher's team, and no one is intercepting it more and generating a better takeaway/giveaway ratio than Brian Billick's. The Ravens are plus-12, the Steelers minus-9, and, remember, 21 slots of separation on the old takeaway-giveaway continuum represents all of the known universe.

No wonder when somebody asked Ben Roethlisberger the other day if Baltimore safety Ed Reed represented a significant turnover threat, Big said, "yeah, him and everybody else on that defense."

It was an exaggeration only in the technical sense. Nine different players on this Ravens defense have intercepted passes on the way to an 8-2 record and a commanding lead in the division. Veteran corner Chris McAlister ("C-MAC" if you must) has four of the 18 picks, and no fewer than three rookies have interceptions as well. Two of them, safety Dawan Landry (Georgia Tech) and cornerback Ronnie Prude (LSU), returned interceptions for touchdowns in a game at New Orleans. Two rookies on the same team returning picks for touchdown's in the same game was something that hadn't happened in the NFL in 42 years.

Without selling any of the athletes short, the swollen pick number is at least partially due to Baltimore's defensive schematics, which are plenty confusing.

"They do a lot of different things," Roethlisberger said. "The coaches gave us a walk-through on the different looks, and it was confusing just walking through it."

Alan Faneca, an All-Pro guard who has been in this Steelers offense longer than anyone except Hines Ward, described in somewhat, um, well, see if you don't find these familiar terms.

"They'll be moving their linemen around, shifting the linebackers, putting a little guy in the box," Faneca said. "They won't look the same two plays in a row."

In other words, it's amazingly like the Steelers' defense, with one immensely relevant exception. This year, Baltimore is playing it a lot more effectively. Only the Chicago Bears have played better defense than Baltimore this season, with the Ravens ranking in the top three in seven defensive categories. With all the complications implicit in that, Faneca still made the analysis simple.

"It'll come down to who runs the ball better," Faneca said. "Whoever keeps the other quarterback off the field more, that's what it'll come down to."

You were thinking maybe a little more no-huddle, the thing that generated almost all the 21 fourth-quarter points at Cleveland that wound up keeping the game today at least marginally meaningful?

"It came to a point where we had to do that," Faneca said. "It was time to change things up. You're not going to see that for a whole game. Ball control and clock control is where we'll play our best."

A lot of things that happen today might fall into the category of things you would rather not see, but whatever they are, they've gotta be superior to what happened at this venue a year ago, when the conflicting chemistry of these organizations somehow resulted in some of the worst theatre the league has ever presented.

There were 32 incompletions, 21 penalties, 11 sacks, 4 turnovers, 2 false starts on the same punt, 2 illegal blocks in the back on the same punt return, and Ward dropping a pass he wound up kicking into the air to be intercepted.

And this special bonus annoyance: Tommy Maddox playing the part of Ben Roethlisberger.

And a second special bonus feature: Overtime!

The Ravens won it with a Matt Stover field goal almost 11 torturous minutes in to the extra period, and he revealed in a subsequent interview that Bill Cowher had asked him specifically not to do that in a friendly pregame chat.

Ravens.

Ya can't trust 'em.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06330/741312-150.stm