Yes, the week that most Steelers and Ravens fans have been waiting for is upon us: Steelers-Ravens week!
As always, the AFC North is up for grabs with the Ravens on top right now with a record of 7-2 and the Steelers in second-place, being one game back with a 6-3 record. But, this year the game that is arguably the best in the NFL bar none has lost some of its luster. The Steelers and Ravens have had their fair share of injuries this year.
The Steelers are going into this game without two of their biggest stars: Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Big Ben is sidelined with an SC sprain and rib injury and it is still up in the air as to when he will return. Troy is still dealing with a calf injury that has had him sidelined for several games. The Steelers are dealing with other injuries as well.
The Ravens aren't quite the MASH unit the Steelers are, but they are dinged up as well. They will be without, among others, their leader and biggest star, Ray Lewis. They also have some of their other big stars playing injured. While the Steelers are hurting all over, the Ravens are hurting mainly on the defensive side of the ball.
This will mark the first time since Big Ben was drafted that the best game in football will be without him, Lewis, Troy and Hines Ward, who retired during the offseason. But, the show must go on and so will this blog. So, let’s get to the matchup, shall we?
First up, the Steelers will be starting veteran back-up quarterback Byron Leftwich, who hasn’t started/won a game with the Steelers. He went into the game Monday night after Big Ben went down and got the win (if this were baseball, we'd say he got the save) for the Steelers. A lot of people think that with Leftwich starting, the Steelers are at a disadvantage. I beg to differ, however, and think offensive coordinator Todd Haley will cater to his quarterback's strentghs. So, BLeft (BLove, Lefty...pick a nickname) will be well prepared for Sunday night.
The Ravens may be sitting at 7-2, but they are hardly the Ravens of old. Granted, the Steelers have had their struggles as well, but the Ravens defense, which is usually ranked in the top five every year, is sitting at No. 28 in the NFL. Their run defense has struggled, No. 26 in the league, which is not Ravens football, and their pass rush has basically been non-existent. They received a boost to their pass rush with the return of Terrell Suggs, but it still has not gotten it going like I know John Harbaugh would like and is used to seeing. Haloti Ngata, the anchor of the defensive line, is also playing hurt with a knee and shoulder injury.
Their secondary has been banged up all season. They first lost arguably their best cornerback Lardarius Webb for the season, and now they have lost his counterpart, Jimmy Smith, for some time due to a groin injury. Ed Reed, who is arguably the NFL's best free safety, is playing through a shoulder issue that has causing his play to be diminished.
The offense has been the star this season, but it has had its issues as well. Joe Flacco has played lights out at home with a passer rating of 108.3. He is 115/173 for 1,612 yards and a completion percentage of 66.5, averaging 9.32 yards and has 10 TDs to just three interceptions. This game is played at Heinz Field, though, not at M&T Bank Stadium, and Flacco’s numbers drop off in key categories on the road. He is 71/136 for 719 yards with a completion percentage of 52.2 and is averaging 5.29 yards and a quarterback rating of 62.7. He has thrown three TDs on the road to four interceptions. At home he has only been sacked eight times compared to 11 times on the road. Flacco also has two rushing TDs, but those are at home as well. He will also be facing the No. 1 pass defense and No. 1 overall defense in the NFL in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So, this will be the tale of the tape for Flacco on how the Ravens season is going to go. They have what could be considered a murderer's row of a schedule left in front of them, with most of those games being on the road. This game could set the tone for them moving forward.
The Ravens are stocked at the wide receiver position with Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Anquan Boldin. These guys can really hurt you if given space. Then you have to account for Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Pitta ranks second on the team with 37 receptions, third with 376 receiving yards and second with three touchdown catches. Dickson has added 12 receptions for 144 yards.
They also have one of the best running backs in the NFL in Ray Rice, though he has been underutilized to this point in the season. He is also very dangerous in the passing game if given the chance. But I look for that to change. I look for Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to try to give the Steelers a healthy dose of Rice, who has the best average on the ground against the Steelers, to open up the pass attack. So they have an offense that can put points up, but they haven’t done that so far on the road this year. Not saying that won’t change, though, because I look for Flacco to come out with all guns blazing and to try to test the Steelers defense early.
The experts are already giving this game to the Ravens, but they say it will be a close game, and we believe it will be as well. The Steelers are riding a 4-game winning streak, but that was with Big Ben. Big Ben has been ruled out, so now Byron Leftwich gets the nod. We don’t really have the big stats for Leftwich like we do Flacco, because he hasn’t played. Still, what can be said is that people are making a big deal about his windup, the fact that he hasn’t played for a long time and that he had issues in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
Looking at the bigger picture of his time in Tampa Bay, though, he did not have the weapons around him like he does in Pittsburgh. So, that can be pushed to the side. There has also been talk about him not knowing Todd Haley’s offense, but, even though he hasn't played, he has been practicing and studying this offense. Letwich is a very savvy veteran and there is a reason the Steelers have kept him around. Leftwich still has a very strong arm that can hurt you if he gets a receiver open. He'll be ready and the Steelers trust in BLeft is warranted. We Steelers fans have been giving him our full support because it has been the “Next Man Up” all season, so we are used to it.
Yes, granted his windup could set him up for more sacks, because let’s face it, Suggs is in this game and he always brings the heat, the offensive line is going to have to account for him. Period. Then it gets me to the weapons we have on offense. Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders will be taking the field for the Steelers as Antonio Brown is most likely to miss his second straight game with an ankle injury. Jerricho Cotchery will be filling in as third receiver. These three have been quite effective on the field as of late because you never know which one is going to get open and break for that big play and Leftwich has an arm that can get the ball to them. Wallace has had some issues with dropped passes this season but that could change at any time.
The Steelers may be getting a boost to their run game this week with the possible return of Mendenhall, but if Mendy is unable to go, and then we will see the twosome of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, who have proven they can pound the rock in his absence. The Ravens are also going to have to make account for Redman in the pass game as well as he has shown as of late he can be just as dangerous as Rice. Then you have what is arguably the most underrated tight end in football in Heath Miller, who is having a great season. The offensive line has been playing better than they showed Monday night, and I look for them to get it back together for this Sunday. They have been run blocking well all season.
The key to this game in our opinion is 'Who is going to hiccup and hurt their team?' It is a known fact, injured or not, the Ravens defense is going to be as ready for us as we are for them. I do not look for this to be a high scoring game. I look for this to actually be the Ravens-Steelers matchup we are used to seeing: an ugly, defensive battle. Both teams are coming in to this game with 19 sacks and both teams are looking to add to those numbers. Paul Kruger in Sunday’s game had two sacks against the Raiders, and Brett Keisel had two sacks in the game against the Chiefs. That is something both teams have not been doing a good job of as of late is getting pressure on the quarterbacks. Look for that to be one of the keys Sunday.
Our prediction on this game is that if both defenses show up and play like we know they can play, this game could very well come down to the last minutes as is usual. With the AFC North up for grabs, expect both defenses to play hard and for it to be very close. If the Steelers get pressure on Flacco and get him confused, Steelers can win. If the Ravens get pressure on Leftwich and get in his head, they could win this.
Going to be a good game regardless of who is on the field, starters or backups.
TIDBIT: I know this is not the usually stat laden blog our loyal readers are used to, but my partner in crime is in the hospital. I know he would want something put out there given that it is Ravens week. It's been a rough week for us at If It Ain’t Steel and I ask that all our readers please keep Jason in your prayers.