Eisenberg: Flacco, Not McAlister, Key to Win

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In the run-up to the Ravens' crucial game against the Steelers Sunday in Pittsburgh, there has been a lot of conversation about a defensive player not even on the team, and virtually none about the offensive player who will likely determine the Ravens' fate.

More than a year after the Ravens dumped him, former cornerback Chris McAlister won this week's most-talked-about award, dominating Internet boards and radio talk shows. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco's name was barely mentioned.

McAlister jumped into the spotlight when rookie Lardarius Webb went down with a knee injury last Sunday, forcing the Ravens to scramble to bolster their pass defense; with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger coming off a 503-yard game and the Ravens' secondary increasingly banged up, there's potential trouble brewing.

The Ravens bypassed McAlister, eschewing the flashy name for veteran Corey Ivy. It was the right move, and not just because McAlister has enough personal baggage for an entire secondary. (Long story. Too long.) His supporters seemed to think the McAlister of yesteryear would show up, but that player no longer exists. He was a shell of his former self in his final games here in 2008, and when the Saints brought him back recently, they cut him after two games. The rest of the league has no interest. It's not a conspiracy. The credits have rolled on his career.

Ivy is smaller and slower, but he's in shape, fierce, and certain to hustle in the nickel and dime packages. I'll take the hungry guy over the entitled faded star every time.

But let's face it, no matter who plays in the secondary Sunday, Roethlisberger is probably going to generate his share of yards and points. The 7-7 Steelers are struggling, but Big Ben's 100.6 passer rating is the league's sixth best. He put up 37 points against the Packers last week.

The Ravens' pass defense, after some tough days earlier in the season, has stabilized lately and is now the league's sixth best, but with Roethlisberger throwing to Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and rookie Mike Wallace, the Steelers are going to score. And I don't mean once.

As I see it, the game will boil down to whether Flacco and the Ravens' offense can match Pittsburgh's output and ultimately top it, as Green Bay couldn't. That's right, the pressure is on the offense Sunday, not the defense. And more specifically, the pressure is on the passing offense. It's no secret that the Steelers' defense is more vulnerable in 2009, but the run defense remains stout, yielding a league-low 83.1 yards per game. It's the Steelers' pass defense (tied for 17th)) that has really fallen off -- no surprise given the absence of injured safety Troy Polamalu.

The Ravens' passing offense has had its ups and downs this year, but confidence is high after strong performances against the Lions and Bears. Those aren't playoff-caliber opponents, but some good habits emerged. Flacco made successful downfield throws (he'd been dumping off too much) and developed trust in more receivers (he'd been relying too heavily on Derrick Mason).

"We got into a rhythm, and in this league, when you build rhythm, you build confidence," Mason said. "We're on a roll right now. We feel there's not a play we can't make as an offense."

Ordinarily, a Ravens-Steelers game in Pittsburgh in late December conjures images of hard hits, busted lips and 10-9 final scores. And with the Ravens' defense ranked fourth overall (you can look it up, it's true) and the Steelers ranked sixth, this Sunday's won't be entirely different. "We're preparing for a physical game," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said.

But I see a different kind of game of evolving, more of a shootout, touchdowns matched by touchdowns rather than field goals matched by field goals. Both offenses are hot and both defenses have issues, setting the stage for play-makers such as Holmes and the Ravens' Ray Rice.

The Ravens need to avoid drive-killing penalties and turnovers, and they need to move the chains early, setting the right tone. Flacco, after yielding the spotlight to McAlister during the week, will play a key role. He needs to be at his best and not leave the game in Roethlisberger's hands at the end. ("Can't leave that guy any time," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said.) Yes, it's the AFC North at season's end, but for a change, may the best offense win..

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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