For the first time in three years, the Pittsburgh Steelers get to play a game after the regular season finale. They closed on the month of December with four straight wins, emerging victorious in eight of their last 10 games to finish as the third seed in the AFC, winning the AFC North for the first time since 2010.
The Steelers clinched a playoff berth with their 20-12 victory over the Chiefs in week 16 at Heinz Field, and then capped off the regular season by completing a sweep over the Bengals with a 27-17 win. They held their last four opponents to under 22 points for the first time all year, and in many ways may be playing their best ball.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy time combating the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, one of three AFC North teams in the postseason this year. In fact, the offense has not been quite as potent as it had been, even at home, and the offense will be without Le’Veon Bell, complicating matters.
But the Ravens’ offense will also be looking at a big loss with left tackle Eugene Monroe declared out, which certainly opens things up for starting right outside linebacker James Harrison and Jarvis Jones, who is likely to spell the 36-year old edge rusher on occasion.
The Ravens will be forced to improvise and shift pieces around along the offensive line, which has been their key offensive strength this season and has helped turn Justin Forsett into a premiere threat, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and rushing for over 1000 yards.
Even with the less than 100 percent Ravens offensive line, the Steelers’ front will still have trouble stopping the run. Rookie Stephon Tuitt is still experiencing growing pains, and nose tackle Steve McLendon has been battling injuries. As a result, opposing offenses have been exploiting runs off right tackle and finding success.
The inside linebacker play will be key in preventing that trend from continuing. Sean Spence failed a few times to hold the edge and allowed the run to get outside him early in the last game. The other two options—Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier—are also similarly inexperienced, but all have found their successes here and there.
Safety Troy Polamalu is expected to make his return, which should help both the running and passing defense, but Ike Taylor may be inactive even though he is listed as probable.
While far from perfect, the Steelers seem to have fallen into a comfortable enough groove with the three primary cornerbacks that they have playing now, with Brice McCain picking off two passes on Sunday and Antwon Blake forcing a key fumble late in the game.
If the defensive line and edge rushers can get enough pressure on Joe Flacco, who has a tendency to hold on to the ball, then the secondary should be able to hold up. If not, the Steelers could be in trouble with the offense potentially limited to one-dimensional play.