Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
When: Sunday, November 18, 8:20 ET
On TV: NBC
On radio: Sirius XM 93
Live streaming: NFL Audio Pass
Betting odds: Ravens (-3.5)
This Sunday night the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers will square off for the first time this season in what is almost always one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. Heinz Field will be absent some of the faces that have given life to the rivalry, as Ray Lewis, Ben Roethlisberger, and Hines Ward won't be suiting up. The aging Ward was released by the Steelers before the season began, and Lewis and Roethlisberger are out with injuries. Both teams have dealt with major injuries this season, but both each has continued to find success.
Pittsburgh (6-3) is one game back from Baltimore (7-2) in the battle for the AFC North, and the pressure is on for them to get the home win before visiting Baltimore in two weeks. The Steelers are playing on a short week after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime on Monday Night Football. The Ravens easily defeated the Oakland Raiders last Sunday and were able to rest key starters, including defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who did not play a snap in the game.
Ngata has been playing with injuries to his knee and shoulder, so the week of rest was significant for him. Meanwhile, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a rare and potentially life-threatening rib injury Monday night, and there is no timetable for his return. The Ravens already depleted secondary lost another member for the foreseeable future, as cornerback Jimmy Smith underwent surgery this week for a sports hernia. He was starting in place of Lardarius Webb, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (ankle) have been ruled out for Sunday. Additionally, saftey Ryan Clark suffered two concussions in the previous three weeks, but has passed concussion tests this week and is listed as probable. Baltimore has its own concerns at safety, as Ed Reed is playing with a torn labrum (shoulder).
The injuries that have depleted both teams will certainly affect the game, but there won't be a drop-off in intensity.
“Once that whistle blows and the bullets become live, I don’t expect anything less than traditional Ravens/Steelers,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, “So, it’s going to be that – it’s going to be what it is.”
Keys to the game
Can the Steelers exploit the Ravens run defense?
With Roethlisberger out, 10-year veteran Byron Leftwich will be at the helm for the Steelers. Leftwich hasn't taken reps with the first-team offense since training camp, and hasn't started since 2009. Leftwich will be without one of the offense's primary weapons in Antonio Brown, who has given the Ravens fits in the past. The Steelers will need to have success running the ball, and fortunately for them, the Ravens have struggled mightily against the run.
Assuming Rashard Mendenhall is able to take the field, the Steelers will have three solid options at running back. Mendenhall has been plagued by injuries and has only played in two games this season, but he was the Steelers leading rusher the past three years. Mendenhall hopes to join running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. Redman struggled last week, but put up 147 rushing yards against the New York Giants the week before. Dwyer has been the Steelers most productive running back, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Former Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward dubbed Dwyer “the minivan” for his plow-'em-down style and large size.
The Ravens 26th-ranked rushing defense hasn't been scaring anyone, and the Steelers will need to have success on the ground to avoid exposing Leftwich. Last weekend, Baltimore tried some new looks in terms of their sub package, with hopes that creativity can overcome personnel issues. They've rotated linebackers, played with five linebackers on the field, and at times have moved outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw to defensive tackle. It's difficult to assess the effectiveness of these changes. Although Baltimore held Oakland to 72 rushing yards last week, Oakland was forced to get their yards through the air after falling behind early in the game.
If Pittsburgh can move the ball on the ground, as so many teams have against Baltimore, the game will be close despite the absence of Roethlisberger and Brown.
Can the Ravens offensive line hold up?
The Ravens put up a franchise record 55 points against Oakland, which leads the NFL in points scored in a single game this season. Part of the credit for their success goes to the offensive line, who didn't allow a sack against an Oakland team that had seen reasonable success getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks in prior weeks. Quarterback Joe Flacco had the time he needed to spread the ball around to eight different receivers.
That being said, Ray Rice and the run game never got rolling. This week, against the league's top defense, the Ravens will need to be more balanced. Rice, the most explosive player on the Ravens' offense, needs to get his carries, not only to make plays himself, but because Flacco needs the run to set up the past. Flacco is most adept when running play-action, and the line simply doesn't have the talent to protect him in obvious passing situation after obvious passing situation.
If the line can simply open up the smallest of spaces for Rice, he can take advantage, and he'll need to have big plays for the Ravens offense to work smoothly this week.
The Ravens have uncertainty at left guard, as they have all season. Against the Raiders, lineman Jah Reid saw the first significant playing time of his career, and the Ravens seem to prefer him over veteran guard Bobbie Williams. Both players will likely see some action.
Rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele will be a key figure in protecting Flacco. He struggled against Kansas City's pass rush in a game in which Flacco had little time to pass, and little success. Osemele will be up against the likes of Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison. Flacco is plenty familiar with the damage the duo can inflict, and he'll be hoping Osemele has taken notes while watching tape.
Can the Ravens get pressure on Leftwich?
The Steelers will look to establish the run early on and avoid giving Leftwich too much to do, but they can't afford to be completely one dimensional, especially against a Ravens team that has proven capable of putting up quick points. The Ravens haven't had a pass rush worth planning for this season, but with Terrell Suggs back in only his third game, that could change.
As Suggs gets into form, double teams on last year's Defensive Player of the Year will open up opportunities for some of the younger players. Linebacker Paul Kruger saw his best game of the season last Sunday with Suggs back on the field, and rookie Courtney Upshaw has shown flashes of talent rushing the passer.
Haloti Ngata was impressive getting to the quarterback early in the season, but his production plummeted as he dealt with injuries. He sat out last week, and if he is able to have more of an impact, the defensive pass rush could be coming together.
Another factor in pressure, largely compliments of the Houston Texans, is the Ravens emphasis on knocking down passes when it's evident they won't be able to reach the quarterback. The Ravens batted down six passes against Oakland, one of which resulted in an interception. The Texans have harried opposing offenses with this technique all year long, and other teams have been picking up on the strategy.
Leftwich has a long wind-up and should be susceptible to pressure. If the Ravens can get to him, it could be a long day for the Steelers.
The Ravens road woes simply won't apply to Heinz Field, where they have beaten the Steelers twice in the past two years. The familiarity with the field, the atmosphere, and the series in general gives this game a different feel than simply another “away” game. Look for Flacco and the offense to replicate some of the success they have seen at home.
The absence of Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown plays interestingly against the fact that the Ravens defense has put up its worst season since 1996. Usually, a Ravens-Steelers game features two excellent defenses against two capable offenses. This year, the Ravens defense looks vulnerable, and headed into the game without key offensive players, the Steelers offense looks equally weak. That isn't to say that weaknesses won't be at least in part mitigated by the passion and toughness both teams feed off of in each other.
If the Ravens can stay disciplined and limit their penalties, they'll have the edge this time around.
Ravens 21, Steelers 17