By Christopher DiMarino
The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered a serious blow when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left the Monday night game. Ben is both the leader and MVP of this team and he is simply irreplaceable. The timing is unfortunate because a murky start to the season was beginning to fade in the rearview mirror and because there are 2 tough matchups against the Baltimore Ravens in the next 3 weeks. Many have disputed the possible length that Ben will be out, but the consensus so far is anywhere between 1 and 3 months. That length indicates that the Steelers will need to fare well against the Ravens, or hazard fighting for a wild card spot.
While the wild card race is still very wide open, it makes you wonder how many games the Steelers can afford to lose without their star quarterback. The plan will clearly be to push through the adversity and continue the next man up mentality, but it will be easier said than done. Byron Leftwich is not an ideal quarterback for the Todd Haley system because Leftwich likes to sling it downfield while Haley calls for short pinpoint passes. The fact that Leftwich admitted he hasn’t been in for many reps scares me further. Charlie Batch might even end up in the game if Leftwich struggles enough or gets hurt. Either way, the running game has garnered even more of the spotlight.
The situation has shifted from, the Steelers will be unstoppable if they run well, to, if they don’t find a way to run the ball with success, they are doomed. The one comforting appeal is that the defense has steadily increased its effectiveness in the past weeks. Stopping Ray Rice will be the prime concern in this one, but Joe Flacco is no slouch throwing the ball. Baltimore oddly enough has been let down by its defense lately more than its offense. Regardless, the Ravens still hold an AFC North leading 7-2 record and it could increase while the 6-3 Steelers try to put the pieces together.
You can reference my competition analysis to learn a little more about the competition below:
This is a difficult section to speculate about. I can estimate what will happen, but I will reserve my judgment until the Steelers take the field. I’m most curious to see who will change more, Leftwich or Haley. Haley might cater the play calling to suit Leftwich a little better, or Leftwich could conceivably come out and show aptitude in Haley’s system. I think either are possible, but the likely outcome this weekend will be some mistakes and miscommunications. This is particularly heralding because the amount of turnovers Leftwich has might be more important than the yards he throws for.
The Ravens passing defense is not playing well. Currently ranked 26th in the league, they are letting opposing teams gain yards with ease. They are still generating turnovers and have 10 interceptions on the season. Their best stat is the measly 8 touchdowns allowed thru the air. They aren’t sacking the quarterback as much as in past years and have 16 sacks like the Steelers.
While the Ravens defense is currently not too different from last year, the amount of personnel changes are uncharacteristic for them. Familiar edge rusher Terrell Suggs is now accompanied by rookie Courtney Upshaw. Haloti Ngata is still a force in the middle, but the middle will be without Ray Lewis. While Lewis’ injury was publicized the most, losing Lardarius Webb was this defense’s biggest loss to injury. Cary Williams is having a great year with 4 interceptions, but with Jimmy Smith now banged up, the Ravens corners might not be able to match up against a deep receiving corps. Safety Ed Reed has 3 interceptions and is joined by Bernard Pollard who leads the team in tackles.
I think the Ravens will be able to pressure the Steelers simply because of the new situation the Steelers are faced with. Max Starks has never been superb against Suggs and when you take away the escapability that Roethlisberger provided, you increase the total sacks. Rookie Mike Adams has been solid, but has had his moments in pass protection. The middle of the line looked weak last week against the Chiefs. Realistically, Ben could have put up huge yardage against this passing defense, which is suffering in the secondary to injury and age, but Leftwich might not have as easy of a day. This secondary is aggressive, so solid play will be rewarded, while careless play will be devastating.
The Steelers simply need to run the ball against the Ravens. The Ravens are also ranked 26th against the run and the Steelers 21st ranking is nothing special. After 3 good weeks, the Steelers dipped again Monday night. Isaac Redman was disastrous and Jonathan Dwyer couldn’t get it going either. It looks like Rashard Mendenhall might be back in action which would really help and the offensive line has been good lately at creating some creases for the backs, but fell apart Monday night. The Ravens still have a lot of its good interior defensive players and Ngata will be a major tyrant against the run.
The Ravens will likely focus on stopping the run to try and force Leftwich to throw the ball. This is an easy tactic based on his lack of familiarity with the offense and limited snaps in the past few seasons. For these reasons and more, unless the running game perseveres, the game might rest on Leftwich’s shoulders. The offensive line needs to have a bounce back week and get some push so the Steelers backs can gallop.
The Steelers #1 ranked passing defense will have its hands full against the 13th ranked Ravens. Flacco hasn\’t developed into a superstar quarterback, but he is still a solid player. Now that he’s equipped with the right weapons, he has demonstrated amazing range. Torrey Smith is the story among this receiving corps as his 7 touchdowns are more than all of the other Ravens receivers combined. He has been a pleasant surprise that many saw coming after his strong play last year. He has given the Ravens a deep threat that opens the underneath for Anquan Boldin and the tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Make no mistake, Smith is the primary weapon in this passing attack. Boldin has slowed lately and neither of the tight ends have established themselves on a consistent basis.
The key to the Steelers defense has been solid coverage, but the pressure has been there when its needed. Like against the Giants, the Steelers defense will need to find a way to pressure the Flacco against a strong pass protecting team. If Flacco has time, he will find his targets and limit the mistakes. In a perfect world, the defense could provide some turnovers or even points to propel the short handed offense. Realistically, this isn’t the strong suit of the league’s #1 ranked defense. The reasoning can be derived from their ranking. They are ranked #1 in yards against, but turnovers and scoring are skills that other powerful defenses like the Bears possess.
It will be interesting to see if Ike Taylor mans up against Boldin or Smith. Normally, a two receiver team would have a great advantage, but Keenan Lewis has almost eliminated that gap. I think the Ravens receivers will have a very even and watchable matchup against the Steelers defensive backs. The deciding factor will be how much time Flacco has. LaMarr Woodley is starting to shake off the hamstring issues and James Harrison has to show more than he has. Brett Keisel reminded us last week that the defensive line can put up sacks and Lawrence Timmons did the same for interceptions from linebackers. If the Steelers continue to play sound defense, even a strong offense like the Ravens will have issues.
While the 6th ranked Steelers run offense has been good lately, it hasn’t excelled like the pass defense. They gave up 142 yards to a Chiefs offense that blatantly wanted to run the ball. The Ravens are only rank 20th running the ball this season, but anyone can tell you that Rice is elite. The offensive line might not be opening up gaping holes like in the past, but if he gets even a smidge of room, he can make a play explosive. The Ravens offense runs thru Rice and limiting him will be the top priority.
Rice is as dynamic as they come. He is a great power runner with breakaway speed, soft hands and can stay in and block. The interior of the Steelers defense has been solid and Larry Foote and Ryan Clark are run stopping machines. What worries me is how the Steelers seem to have particular issues against the scat backs. While Rice isn’t solely a scat back, he possesses the speed of a Jamaal Charles and a Chris Johnson, both of whom surpassed 100 yards.
This game is not looking favorably for the Steelers. Their offense is a mystery so far, and while the Ravens defense has struggled this year, it is still a matchup that favors them. The key points for the Ravens defense are the turnovers and points allowed, which are both still elite by NFL standards. On the other side, the Steelers defense needs to stop the run to have a hope of competing. If they limit Rice, their top ranked pass defense will still have a tall task stopping Flacco and this passing offense. The Steelers will need to pressure him because he is capable of making the big throws and stretching the field if he has time.
The swing factor in this game is the home crowd. The Steelers have been spectacular at home so far this season and that edge could mean a lot in this game. I would also look at some of the games Haley has called. After a little transition period, the play calling seemed particularly effective and it kept the defenses off balance. If the offense can put up some points and the defense can get some stops, this can easily turn into a game. Even if it does get close, Flacco is capable of ending it with a late drive. Time of possession might factor into this one which again points back to running the ball. That should be the emphasis in practice because it will take pressure off of Leftwich.
The odds are against the Steelers, but there is still a chance. I would say that there are equal chances that the Ravens blow out the Steelers, win regularly, narrowly win or lose narrowly. But giving a roster as deep and talented as the Steelers, even a 25% chance is enough to cause concern in their opponents. No matter what happens, the Steelers will look different when they take the field against the Ravens. I’m scared that this look might be distressing initially, but I am excited at the possibility that even through extenuating circumstances that the Black and Gold and can stick it to the Ravens.