It's always a challenging game when the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Baltimore Ravens, their biggest divisional rival. This week, it's even more so, with starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined with a serious rib and shoulder injury and Byron Leftwich under center in his place.
Despite this unexpected change of plans, it's not impossible for the Steelers to defeat the visiting Ravens—they simply need to play up their own strengths and capitalize on Baltimore's weaknesses, same as they'd do with Roethilsberger on the field.
Here's a game plan for Pittsburgh as they prepare for the Ravens and the possibility of coming ever-closer to holding the top spot in the AFC North.
Run the Ball
The Baltimore Ravens defense has been dismal at stopping the run this season. Aside from the 72 yards they gave up to the Oakland Raiders and their 31st-ranked run game last week, the Ravens have struggled against the run for weeks.
Prior to that seemingly smart performance (which came with both of the Raiders' top-two backs sidelined with injuries), Baltimore gave up 116, 181, 227 and 214 yards on the ground per game, respectively. They rank 26th overall in rushing yards allowed, 23rd in rushing touchdowns allowed and 27th in rushing first downs.
Though the switch from Roethlisberger to Leftwich means the Ravens will be prepared to see a lot of running, they might not be able to do much to stop it. And at the very least, it's more than worth the Steelers' time to get the ball into the hands of their running backs early and often.
There's no indication that it won't work.
In Week 10, the Steelers barely squeaked by the Kansas City Chiefs, defeating them 16-13, but they still also put up 95 rushing yards. In the three games before that, they put up 167, 140 and 158 rushing yards apiece, with Jonathan Dwyer netting the first two and Isaac Redman the latter.
This week, Rashard Mendenhall will get the start, returning from an Achilles' tendon injury that had him shelved for the last four games, but it's likely that Redman and Dwyer still make contributions of their own. The Steelers must try anything to attack Baltimore's defense where it is weakest and to keep pressure off of Leftwich, who is making his first start since 2009.
The Steelers could certainly still be successful passing the ball—the Ravens defense also ranks 26th in passing yards allowed per game—but it's hard to imagine that Leftwich can mimic what Roethlisberger had been accomplishing this season after just a few snaps against the Chiefs and a week of first-team reps in practice.
And, with Baltimore expecting the run, Pittsburgh will have to pull a few passing tricks out of its hat. However, running the ball is how to punish the Ravens defense the most, it eats up valuable time and is an area that the Steelers have been particularly strong as of late.
Beware the Ravens' Scoring Offense
It's fairly common knowledge that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been struggling on the road this year, completing just 52.9 percent of his passes and throwing just four touchdown passes in those four away games. However, he can't be counted out as a scoring threat against the Steelers this week, even if his completions are still kept to a minimum.
Further, expect the Ravens to focus more on running the ball this week, considering both Flacco's road woes and the fact that Jamaal Charles ran for 100 yards against the Steelers on Monday, mainly attacking the left side of Pittsburgh's defense. If Rice can get the Ravens into scoring position, that's when Flacco becomes a threat. The Steelers' biggest defensive priority should be to keep the Ravens out of the red zone as much as is possible.
Baltimore is averaging 3.2 red-zone scoring attempts per game this season and is putting up a touchdown 65.52 percent of the time—the fifth-best red-zone touchdown percentage in the league (Pittsburgh ranks 18th, scoring a touchdown 50 percent of the time). They are averaging 3.2 team touchdowns per game with 1.3 of those coming from the rush, and 1.4 from the pass and they've outscored their opponents by a 6.4-point margin on average.
Pittsburgh's scoring defense isn't as strong as their overall defensive performance this year. Though they lead the league in yards allowed per game, they've dipped to seventh in points allowed—not an insignificant disparity, and that's mainly due to their red-zone defense.
The Steelers have allowed their opponents an average of three red-zone scoring attempts per game this year, and those offenses are coming away with touchdowns 55.56 percent of the time, ranking them just 20th in the league.
This is something the Ravens will be trying to take advantage of on Sunday night and the best way to prevent it is to keep them out of scoring range.
The Steelers are far better at killing drives this year than in the last, allowing just 4.6 third-down conversions per game (ranking them ninth at present) compared to last year, when they ranked 23rd, with 5.2. However, they cannot allow Rice to run at will as Charles did last week or else those third-down stops won't come as easily and they'll find themselves having to stop one of the more efficient scoring offenses in the league.
It's beyond just keeping Rice in check or forcing Flacco to make the passing errors he's all-too-familiar with when playing on the road.
It's about keeping Baltimore's drives short and scores at a premium. Baltimore is better at scoring touchdowns in the red-zone than the Steelers, and turning that statistic on its head on Sunday is a way Pittsburgh can secure a win.
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