It won’t be the same match-up as everyone had anticipated, but the stakes are still extremely high nonetheless this Sunday night, as the Baltimore Ravens put their claim to first place in the AFC North on the line against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Much of the to-do about this game is the recent rib injury to Ben Roethlisberger, as he will miss this game game, and most likely when these teams meet again in two-plus weeks.
Insert Byron Leftwich, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since week 3 of 2009 when he was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Leftwich is approaching his 33rd birthday and is not nearly as mobile as he once was.
This will be the fifth time since Roethlisberger came into the league that the Ravens will face the Steelers without Big Ben. The Ravens are 4-0 in the previous four occurrences, beating the likes of Charlie Batch (twice), Tommy Maddox and Dennis Dixon.
Despite taking on quarterbacks nowhere near the talent of Roethlisberger, the Ravens haven’t run away with the games started by other quarterbacks. The Ravens have won by three in overtime twice, by three points in regulation and six points in regulation, so nothing to feel good about on the Ravens’ end.
However, a win is a win, and the Ravens will take a win no matter how it occurs considering the magnitude of this game.
There are injury problems elsewhere for the Steelers, as safety Troy Polamalu and wide receiver Antonio Brown will also miss the game. Polamalu has made some big plays in the past against Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense, so he won’t be missed by anyone in purple and black.
The Steelers’ offensive line is also a patchwork group, so the protection in front of the less-mobile Leftwich is another area of concern for the Steelers.
The good news for Pittsburgh is that they will be getting running back Rashard Mendenhall back, as he has played in only one full game all season. Miraculously, hard-hitting safety Ryan Clark is also expected to play despite reportedly suffering two concussions in the last three games.
The Ravens meanwhile are banged up as well, but nowhere near as severe as their rivals.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was inserted into the starting lineup after Lardarius Webb’s season ending injury, will miss this game after sports hernia surgery on Thursday. Smith was starting to come around in his new role, but will be replaced by Corey Graham, amongst others.
Defensive end Pernell McPhee is also expected to miss this game, but perennial Pro-Bowler Haloti Ngata is expected to play, which should be huge considering the job he can do against the running game.
With Roethlisberger out and all three of the Steelers’ running backs on track to play, the Ravens’ run defense must be stout in order to force Leftwich to beat them. The unit is ranked 26th in the league in run defense, so slowing down the Steelers’ rushing attack is a focal point.
The Ravens’ offense has to be feeling good about itself after putting up a franchise-high 55 points last week, but they will be taking on the NFL’s top-rated defense in terms of yards per game and rushing yards per game. Throw in the fact that Flacco has played much worse on the road this season, and it may not be as big of a mismatch as it may appear.
However, the Ravens are on an 11-game winning streak in the AFC North and the injury aspect of the game clearly favors them. Flacco is 4-2 against the Steelers in his last six regular season meetings, and the Ravens’ offense is averaging a robust 28.2 points per game.
The Ravens and Steelers have traditionally played lower scoring games, and I wouldn’t expect this game to be much different. Look for the healthier Ravens to come away with a hard-fought 20-13 victory and take a two-game lead in the AFC North.