As we await a week filled with speculation about Ben Roethlisberger's playing status for Sunday's AFC North showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, it's pretty remarkable that the latest chapter in this rivalry could be played without Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Ray Lewis on the field. It will be the first time since the final game of the 2007 regular season when none of the three have been in the game. That day, Lewis was sidelined with hand and back injuries while Roethlisberger and Ward were rested for the playoffs. That being said, I think it would be foolish to count out Roethlisberger from this game until Steelers coach Mike Tomlin officially declares him out. I think we've all seen this movie before with Roethlisberger to jump to any conclusions.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh will speak to reporters later today, and I'm sure he'll be asked about yesterday's signing of veteran cornerback Chris Johnson. I had two initial thoughts after learning of the signing: 1. The Ravens are increasingly concerned about the status of second-year corner Jimmy Smith, who didn't play Sunday because of a groin injury. Harbaugh acknowledged that Smith just couldn't get loose before or during the game and that was apparent watching him run at halftime. 2. Rookie cornerback Asa Jackson, a fifth-round draft pick out of Cal Poly who has been inactive all year, is a guy the Ravens still have high hopes for, but he's simply not ready to play meaningful possessions right now.
Johnson, by the way, is a guy that is certainly worth cheering for. Just two seasons ago, Johnson was a starting cornerback for the Oakland Raiders in the middle of a three-season span in which he had eight interceptions. However, his personal life took a tragic turn during the 2011 season when Johnson's sister and his mother were shot by his sister's estranged boyfriend. His sister was killed in the shooting while Johnson's mother survived. Johnson acknowledged in an SI.com story that he struggled to focus on football after his sister's death. He's been out of football since his release from the Raiders in March but the Ravens are giving him another chance. Good luck to him.
As poorly as he played Sunday against the Raiders and as much as he's struggled tackling over the past couple of years, I'd be very surprised if you don't see a much better Ed Reed on Sunday. One, Reed is a prideful guy who tends to respond when criticism about his play is at its loudest. Two, his best two games this season have come in the season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on "Monday Night Football" and two weeks later against the New England Patriots in a prime-time game on Sunday. Largely because of the physical issues that he's had over the years and the fact that he is 34 years old, Reed just isn't going to be the big-play presence that he once was on a weekly basis. But he can still dial it up on occasion and he certainly remains a guy that opposing teams are aware of and game plan against.
One of the biggest revelations over the past couple of weeks for the Ravens has been the play of rookie defensive tackle DeAngelo Tyson. The seventh-round pick out of Georgia was inactive for the Ravens' first six games, but he's made an impact in three games since. He had two tackles in his NFL debut against the Houston Texans, two more against the Cleveland Browns and he batted down two Carson Palmer passes Sunday against the Raiders. At a time where Pernell McPhee is injured and Arthur Jones, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody have struggled to make meaningful contributions, Tyson emerging as a reliable member of the defensive line rotation is a nice development for the Ravens.
Because he's taken so much blame for the defense's struggles, it's probably a good week to give credit to defensive coordinator Dean Pees for some of the adjustments that he made. Pees has always had a reputation for being pretty creative and I think you saw a little of that this past week. Pees used rookie Courtney Upshaw at defensive tackle on occasion and also used a "dollar" package that included two defensive lineman, three linebackers and six defensive backs. The Ravens gave up a lot of yards to the Raiders, but the defense was much more active, albeit against a really bad football team. It was also good to see the Ravens knock down some passes against Carson Palmer. It sounds like common sense that if you're not getting to the passer much – and the Ravens clearly haven't – you might as well fill the passing lanes and get your hands up. So few teams, however, do it well.