The Ravens and Steelers are in their typical spots atop the AFC North, but their first meeting this season, a primetime Sunday night game, Pittsburgh will be without Big Ben.
This AFC North clash lost some of its luster when Ben Roethlisberger was ruled out with a serious rib injury. Big Ben sustained a shoulder injury in the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, but it was later revealed that an injured dislocated rib came close to hitting his aorta – a much more serious concern that could keep him out beyond this week. Roethlisberger's injury resulted in a seven- to eight-point swing in the spread, and dealt a blow to a Steelers team hitting their stride as they attempt to chase down the Ravens in the AFC North standings.
Baltimore has plenty of their own injury concerns, as their promising 5-1 start took a hit when Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis were lost for the season. After a blowout loss to the Houston Texans, the Ravens have continued their winning ways under Jim Harbaugh with victories over Cleveland and Oakland. But Pittsburgh, in primetime at Heinz Field, should be a step up. A win will push their lead in the division back to two games in the loss column, with Pittsburgh still having to make the trip to Maryland.
Meet the Steelers
Pittsburgh is on a four-game win streak, and has not lost a game at home this season. But their momentum was surely stunted when Roethlisberger went down. Now, they'll turn to Byron Leftwich, who has not started in the NFL since 2009. He made an appearance in a game for just the second time in two years last week, and the veteran was competent under center, steering the Steelers to a narrow overtime win against the lowly Chiefs.
Leftwich was 7-of-13 for 73 yards last week, leading one touchdown drive in a game where the heavily favored Steelers struggled for the full 60 minutes. He certainly brings less to the table than Roethlisberger, so Todd Haley could rely on the ground game and use a "dink and dunk" approach that was the subject of some mild controversy earlier in the season.
Pittsburgh's rushing attack has steadily improved over the past month – it had been among the least productive ground games in the league through the first six weeks of the season. With Rashard Mendenhall nursing injuries, it's been a committee system with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman getting a majority of the carries. Mendenahll did practice this week and is expected to share time with Dwyer and Redman. Uncharacteristically, Baltimore's defense has been particularly poor against the run. Opposing backs have repeatedly found running room, with teams racking up big numbers on the ground early in the game. This is not the Baltimore defense of years past, and even with Big Ben out, there are some vulnerabilities there that the Steelers can exploit.
On the defensive side of the ball, Dick LeBeau's group is once again right at the top of the NFL. The Steelers are first in the league against the pass, and fifth in the league against the rush. Joe Flacco has improved this season, but the Steelers have the bodies to matchup with the physicality of Anquan Boldin and the speed of Torrey Smith. Safety Ryan Clark is expected to play, just a week after sustaining a concussion – his second in three games.
Meet the Ravens
Baltimore maintains a one-game lead in the AFC North, weathering injuries and holding off a streaking Steelers team. They have a pretty steady run-pass balance on the offensive side of the ball – a unit most responsible for their 7-2 start. Much was made of an impending Flacco breakout season, and the fifth-year pro has put up solid numbers through the first half of the season.
Flacco shepherds an offense averaging 249.2 yards through the air. He's been able to consistently connect with Smith outside the numbers for several big plays. Boldin is reliable as ever, working in the middle of the field and using his size to fight through opposing corners. Facing the No. 1 pass defense in the league, Flacco will need to avoid the costly turnovers on the road in primetime. He's been relatively good at limiting the giveaways, throwing just seven interceptions so far this season.
Ray Rice continues to be one of the league's best options out of the backfield. Armed with a new contract, Rice is the steady component of an offense that's tried to emphasize more no-huddle passing this season. He is dealing with a toe injury but he's expected to be ready to face the rival Steelers defense. He's averaging 4.6 yards per carry, but has not broken the 100-yard mark since Week 5. The Ravens worst game of the season was against a comparable defense to the one they'll face this week – a Week 7 loss to the Texans. The Steelers have a similar ability to stop both the pass and the run, and can certainly make Flacco feel uncomfortable. Attempting to establish Rice should be a priority early, as the Chiefs definitely got some traction on the ground last week.
It's well known that the Ravens defense has struggled this season, yielding yardage on the ground in big chunks. They're without their leader in the middle, Ray Lewis, and lost their top corner, Lardarius Webb. Terrell Suggs returned miraculously early from his Achilles injury and is already wreaking havoc in opposing backfields. Haloti Ngata is expected to be ready to go and provide a crucial impediment in the middle. Pittsburgh has struggled on the ground this season, and with Big Ben out, that's likely where they will start. If Baltimore can bottle that up early, they will force the Steelers to use the relatively untested Leftwich to try and beat them. Pittsburgh may also be without Antonio Brown, a key receiving threat. With Roethlisberger out, the Ravens defense should be eager to prove themselves in the primetime spotlight.
Local Takes: Steelers
SB Nation's Steelers blog, Behind the Steel Curtain, examined how the Pittsburgh defense can shut down the Baltimore ground attack in their pre game scouting reports:
Flacco can run play action toward the run, but he is not that adept at faking the run, reversing out with depth, and snapping his head around to find an open receiver. Not to say that he cannot do this, or he has never done it. Just that it is not as big as a threat as it would be with, say, the smaller and quicker Matt Cassel.
This helps the Steelers because it allows them to be much more aggressive with either outside linebacker pursuing the play from behind. James Harrison has caused many a fumble in his day doing exactly this.
During the game, watch the outside linebacker away from the run. See if he is pursuing hard down the line to take away the cut back.
Local Takes: Ravens
Bruce Raffel also addressed both teams' rush games as he predicted a narrow Ravens win:
The return of not only Terrell Suggs, but also Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, would greatly improve the chances of putting pressure on Leftwich. Of course, the best thing the Ravens can do is shut down the running game and force Pittsburgh to go to the air a lot more often than they want, which will be the key to the game.
The same goes for the Ravens, who will want to get their own running game untracked, although the difference is that they are not afraid to go to the air. However, the question arises of whether the Ravens questionable offensive line can protect QB Joe Flacco and not put him in the position of getting rid of the ball too early and leading to Ravens turnovers that give that same benefit to the Steelers.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Ravens-Steelers: Preview & Prediction sbn.to/T60elS— Bruce Raffel (@BaltimoreBeatdo) November 16, 2012
@MarkKaboly_Trib - Steelers beat reporter
Steelers' Clark baffled by criticism of decision to play after 2 concussionssulia.com/my_thoughts/cc…— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) November 16, 2012
@JeffZrebiecSun - Ravens beat writer
A snapshot into the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. Well worth your time Ravens fans baltimoresun.com/sports/ravens/…— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) November 16, 2012
No Big Ben on Sunday. Since being drafted in 2004, the Steelers QB has missed the Ravens game four times due to suspension or injury. And the Steelers lost all four of those games. Sometimes one player really does make all the difference.
The pick: 16-9, Ravens
As expected, the line took a big swing when Roethlisberger went down on Monday Night Football. The line opened with the Steelers favored by 4½ points, and after the announcement that Big Ben was out, it flipped to Ravens by 3½ points in most places.