For the second time in three weeks, the luster has been lost for an AFC North rivalry game between the Steelers and Ravens. Both teams appeared to be headed towards another December battle for first place, but an injury to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put a dramatic stop to the Steelers second-half push. When the teams first met just two weeks ago, it was Byron Leftwich leading a struggling offense. Leftwich injured his ribs in the loss to Ravens, handing the reins to third-stringer Charlie Batch.
In last week's game in Cleveland, Batch led an offense that committed eight turnovers and handed the game to the Browns. The veteran is well past the sunset of his career, but the Steelers are working with limited options at this point. Brian Hoyer, who spent much of his career backing up Tom Brady, was hastily signed in the week leading up to the Browns game, and he could now be an option under center if things get ugly early again.
Meet the Ravens
The Roethlisberger injury put the Ravens in firm control of the AFC North, where they hold a three-game lead over both the Steelers and Bengals. They finish the season in Cincinnati, but a win on Sunday evening combined with a Bengals loss will lock things up in the division as the final month begins. And they will be heavy favorites at home, where they are a perfect 5-0 this season.
While Baltimore is a sterling 9-2 overall, it hasn't been pretty lately. They needed a 4th-and-29 Ray Rice miracle last week against a Chargers team that many felt had given up on the season, and they escaped Pittsburgh with a win despite not scoring an offensive touchdown. It seems there will always be debate over Joe Flacco's place in the QB hierarchy, but the Ravens offense has sputtered a bit in the second half of the season. Still, Flacco leads the league's 11th-best passing attack, throwing for 246.5 yards per game. Much of that success came early in the season, as the Ravens utilized the no-huddle and Flacco hit his targets -- Torrey Smith deep and outside the numbers, and Anquan Boldin working across the field against undersized corners.
Of course, turning and handing it off to Rice is also never a bad option. Armed with a big new contract, Rice continues to be one of the league's elite running backs. As he demonstrated last week, he's also a top option catching the ball out of the backfield. The best way Pittsburgh stays in the game is through their defense, which boasts the best pass D in the NFL. They're also among the best against the run, but the Ravens will undoubtedly feed the ball to Rice early as they try to avoid turnovers that would give Pittsburgh some life.
Special teams -- specifically, Jacoby Jones, could also have an impact on the game. It was Jones who had the decisive touchdown in the last meeting, a 63-yard punt return. Jones has three returns for touchdowns this season, and is always a threat to house one on both kickoffs and punts. If the Ravens add any points on special teams, it will be extremely difficult for Pittsburgh's hamstrung offense to keep up.
Meet the Steelers
The Steelers are obviously a different team without Roethlisberger, but last week it was likely uglier than their fans, or Mike Tomlin, could have imagined. Batch was simply not a threat against a Cleveland secondary that had been the weakness of the Browns team all season. He compounded it with a spate of costly turnovers that repeatedly put the Steeler defense in tough spots.
The Steelers run game hasn't exactly picked up the slack either, as four separate running backs also lost fumbles in Cleveland. Starter Rashard Mendenhall has not been at full strength all season, and only Jonathan Dwyer has had moments of sustained success on the ground. But Dwyer is also inconsistent, and Tomlin has already benched him this season for losing fumbles. At 101.5 yards per game, Pittsburgh as the 22nd ranked rush game in the NFL. The Ravens defense has been particularly prone to giving up big days to opposing backs, but they've improved in the month of November. With either Batch or Hoyer under center, however, the Steelers will have to try and get something going on the ground.
Pittsburgh's defense is entirely capable of keeping the Steelers in the game. Their pass defense is the best in the NFL, and their rush defense is in the top five. Even with star players on the sidelines, these AFC North games against the Ravens are always brutal contests that can turn on a flukey turnover. Torrey Smith is coming off another impressive week and he will present a challenge on the outside, but the Steelers defense should be up to the task. An already excellent unit is likely getting better this week, as Troy Polamalu is probable to play in Baltimore. It would be only his third appearance this season, and his first game since Week 5. But can he and the defense do enough to pull off the upset without Roethlisberger?
Local Takes: Ravens
SB Nation's Ravens blog, Baltimore Beatdown, dives deeper into their defense's ability to stop the run, particularly against a Steelers team severely limited through the air:
For a team that has had trouble against the run, this game may not be as simple as many Ravens fans hope it will be. It will be up to the Ravens offense to put up some early points and force their opponent to put the ball in the air and try to score quickly. The game needs to be put out of reach quickly or the wrong bounce of the ball could hurt Baltimore in the long run. With Roethlisberger out this game is now a must win for the Ravens, which means they must stop the run.
So as happy as the many casual fans are that Big Ben is not playing, they will be equally as sad if the Ravens decide to take a mental bye week and cough one up to their hated rivals because they were looking past them. This team has shown they can win the tough games but sometimes the "easy" wins can prove to be the hardest to attain.
Local Takes: Steelers
Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain penned an excellent preview of what the depleted Pittsburgh offense must do to stay in the game against their rival:
The Steelers coaches will be put to their biggest test of the season - finding a way to stop a high-powered offense while finding points with several key players out and others playing new positions.
Pittsburgh has to establish the run in this game, and play to a low-scoring game. They cannot stand toe-to-toe with the Ravens and engage in a shoot out. Batch cannot be put into a position to lose this game; turnovers will affect the Steelers far more than they will the Ravens, so protecting the ball is paramount if the Steelers are to win this game.
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Ravens-Steelers Preview & Prediction sbn.to/YfjC5g— Bruce Raffel (@BaltimoreBeatdo) November 30, 2012
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@MarkKaboly_Trib - Steelers beat reporter
Part two. The Ravens beat the Steelers two weeks ago. Baltimore clinches a playoff spot with a win, and clinches the division title with a win and a Bengalsloss. The Steelers are likely without Ben Roethlisberger. The game will be played in Baltimore, where the Ravens haven't lost since December 2010. All the trends say Baltimore.
The pick: 10-7, Ravens
No Roethlisberger makes the Ravens heavy favorites against their rival, as OddsShark lists Baltimore as 9½ point favorites at most places.
The Ravens will make the short drive down to FedEx Field for an intrastate matchup against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. The Steelers will host the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field.