The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently riding a three-game winning streak against largely quality opponents, and are hoping to ride that winning streak right through the end of the regular season and all the way through the Super Bowl.
That goal begins today against the Baltimore Ravens, who in Week Four defeated a Mike Vick-led Steelers team in an overtime victory after tying the game with a late field goal in the fourth quarter, during which Pittsburgh missed two.
Both sides look significantly different than they did nearly three months ago. The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger back, while the Ravens have lost Joe Flacco. Both Le’Veon Bell and Justin Forsett are gone, but the Steelers have had DeAngelo Williams step in and hardly miss a beat.
Perhaps most interestingly, neither team has their starting left tackle after Kelvin Beachum went down with an ACL, replaced by the weekly-improving Alejandro Villanueva. Meanwhile, the Ravens have had to attempt to replace Eugene Monroe by shifting guard Kelechi Osemele out to the perimeter.
It should go without saying that watching Osemele try to take on Jarvis Jones and James Harrison will be a key battle in this game, as no matter who is under center, they will find open targets against this secondary if not pressured.
But moving Osemele will only weaken the offensive line interior, where Cameron Heyward wreaked havoc just last week, and nearly every week. The defensive end has accumulated 14.5 sacks in his past 30 games over the course of the past two seasons.
The defense had a very difficult time with communication in the first half last week against the Broncos, which helped lead to a 27-point effort, but the second half was very different. Will being on the road reproduce a performance more similar to the first or second half? As we learned, Ryan Shazier’s communication was an early issue, though he came back to record his first interception.
For the past three weeks, the Steelers have waited a few drives before rotating in Brandon Boykin as the third cornerback, and they have not been consistent in their personnel shifts. Sometimes Ross Cockrell has come out, though it has chiefly been Antwon Blake substituted out. Will these patterns continue, or will Boykin get in right away?
The Ravens’ secondary is playing a bit banged up, and they have yet to see this Steelers aerial offense at full force. Considering what they did to the Broncos secondary last week, it’s hard to imagine that Roethlisberger and that group of wide receivers will not be lined up for a big day, especially considering the Ravens’ pass rush is no better.
Admittedly, it is hard not to be cynical about the quality of this Ravens team, even if they technically beat the Steelers earlier this year. But the two sides have trended sharply in different directions since then, and this has the feeling of one of the less compelling games in the rivalry in recent memory. But the Steelers have all the motivation in the world to win this game, because, combined with a Jets loss, it would lock up a postseason berth.