It is interesting to see how teams evolve in the NFL. A few years ago, the AFC North was a smash-mouth division, home to solid running games and fearsome defences. This year, however, it is the stomping ground of two of the league’s premier aerial attacks.
And when the Baltimore Ravens (7-2), head to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers (6-3) these two attacks will meet. Of course, with the potentially life-threatening injury to Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, one of the aerial attacks has been almost extinguished. Backup, Byron Leftwich is a capable starter but is immobile and has a long release motion that makes him more vulnerable to the pass rush. Fortunately for him, the Baltimore defence has been running on reputation for a couple years now and it has started to show. Linebacker Ray Lewis past his prime quite a few seasons ago and was more a liability than an asset against the run and the pass. However, his analytical mind has clearly been missed by the Ravens since his season ending injury.
According to advanced statistics, the Ravens' front seven are actually in the bottom half of the league defensively, with a rush defence ranked 28th and a pass defence ranked 19th – ironically right by Pittsburgh, which is 27th against the rush and 20th against the pass. This despite them being considered the top defence overall when yards per game alone is considered.
For this matchup, the Steelers are somehow still favoured by three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half points. Although playing at home, the Steelers are beset by injuries on offense. As well as Roethlisberger, primary receiver, Antonio Brown is also out and the Steelers’ backfield is banged up.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall is expected to be back after injuring his Achilles earlier this year and destroying his knee ligaments last year. Backups, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are also nursing niggling injuries. It will be up to them to carry the Steelers offensively.
Meanwhile on defence, the Steelers will need linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison to put in the kind of combined performance they used to be renowned for if the Steelers want to slow down Ravens’ quarterback, Joe Flacco and his no-huddle offense.
Baltimore receiver, Torrey Smith has emerged as Baltimore’s best receiver this year, and although he is nursing a chest injury, will be called upon to move the Ravens down the field. Steelers’ cornerback, Ike Taylor has started to show his age this year but the emergence of Keenan Lewis across from him has been a pleasant revelation for Pittsburgh fans. The battle between Lewis, Taylor, safeties Will Allen and (probably) Ryan Clark on one side and Ravens’ receivers, Smith, Anquan Boldin and tight end, Dennis Pitta will be one of the best to watch.
All of America will be able to watch the battle for the lead in the AFC North when the two teams square up at 8:20 PM EST on NBC. The Sunday Night game promises to be brutal, as Steelers-Ravens games usually are, but the safer money would definitely be on Baltimore for this one.