One of the NFL's biggest rivalries is in full effect in Week 11 as the Baltimore Ravens take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
The Ravens (7-2) have had a season defined mostly by injuries. While many have written them off as Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb went on IR and countless others have rotated on and off the injury report, the Ravens have continued to win—notably behind a solid Joe Flacco-led offense.
The Steelers (6-3) may have had an inside shot at the AFC North title as Raven after Raven went down, but then Ben Roethlisberger's nine lives ran out and he went down with shoulder and rib injuries. Now, Byron Leftwich gets a start behind a decimated offensive line, which—mixed with his historically slow release—should be a recipe for disaster.
So which AFC North super power wins on Sunday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Can Pittsburgh Win Without Big Ben?
For years, the common consensus was that the Pittsburgh offensive line stunk. However, football gurus were quick to point out that Roethlisberger was often holding the ball too long, increasing the likelihood of sacks.
Fast forward to present day and the opposite is true. While, yes, the Steelers have invested incredible resources into their offensive line, not every pick has hit or has played as well as hype would have us believe. Injuries have exacerbated the issue, but Roethlisberger's ability to extend the play has turned into a strength on this team. Opponent after opponent has forced him out of the pocket, and he still makes plays.
Without Roethlisberger and without his aptitude to survive behind that offensive line, how will the Steelers move the ball? On the ground? Probably not—especially if teams are able to stack the box. Through short passes? Probably not as well with a quarterback who hasn't been able to work on timing and chemistry with his receivers.
If Leftwich reduces the Steelers offense into taking shots down the field and praying, this could get ugly, quickly.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is Baltimore's Offense Ready for Prime Time?
The Ravens' new offensive style has been tested, really tested, twice this season—against the Cowboys in Week 6 and the Texans in Week 7. Pittsburgh, statistically speaking, is better than both of those defenses and will be fired up to prove doubters wrong against one of their least-favorite opponents.
Can Flacco get into a rhythm with bodies flying around him? Can his receivers get off of the line of scrimmage fast enough and create enough separation to let their QB diagnose the schemes Dick LeBeau is ready to throw at him?
The one caveat here is that Troy Polamalu isn't playing and this defense has a different character when he isn't on the field. Yes, statistically speaking, they are still great, but the emotional and leadership impact (as well as the playmaking ability) is still huge. In a game that is sure to be awfully chippy from the warm up period on, he will be missed.
If Baltimore can move the ball against the Steelers—especially in a well-balanced fashion—it will set the Ravens up as one of the few legitimate "teams to beat" in the AFC.
Keys for the Baltimore Ravens
The biggest key for the Ravens on offense has to be: take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. The Steelers will almost certainly get caught out of gaps or beaten on a double move. When teams fail to capitalize (with a capital "T" and a capital "D" on those mistakes, the Steelers defense can start to impose its will.
Torrey Smith will be huge for the Ravens and (physically speaking) will be the best player anywhere on the perimeter. Every ball he fails to track over his shoulder or lets through his grasp is an invitation to be blown out of Heinz Field with a loss.
It goes without saying that Flacco needs to be at his best. If LeBeau outsmarts him with a zone-blitz package and "Joe Cool" looses his cool, the rest of the matchups become academic.
On defense, the Steelers will look to press the perimeter as well, so Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed will need to make sure no one gets behind them. Leftwich has a lot of faults, but he can hang it up deep with the best of them. Look also for the Ravens to press the middle of the Pittsburgh offensive line to force Leftwich to go on the move.
Keys for the Pittsburgh Steelers
As mentioned earlier, the Steelers need to take shots down the field as well and (like the Ravens) need to connect when they do. There simply aren't a lot of easy ways to beat this Ravens offense without winning individual matchups, and there are even fewer when Leftwich is under center. Take a few chances, assume Ed Reed is going to pick off a pass or three and let the chips fall where they may.
Haloti Ngata is the one player the Steelers need to game-plan around. If they let him scrape off-tackle and get any sort of penetration, they're not going to get going on the ground. Throw as many bodies at him as possible, but more importantly, get him going up field and run around him—draws, counters and inside traps are going to be a lot more effective than trying to overpower him at the line of scrimmage.
Defensively, the Steelers are going to roll out a winning game plan, we know that much week-in and week-out. The biggest question is execution. Will the Ravens' up-tempo style cause the Steelers' already-weak defensive line to tire more quickly than usual? Will the absence of Polamalu keep the defensive backfield from making back-breaking, momentum-shifting plays?
If the Steelers defense executes, of course they can shut down the Ravens, but the Ravens offense is not the slouch it has been. The Steelers will need an A+ effort and a couple lucky bounces to boot.
Bold Prediction: Tyrod Taylor Finishes the Game in Mop-Up Duty
Something's gotta break in this game, and Leftwich is the weak link. Eventually, even the most herculean efforts of the Steelers defense will fall short if the offense can't move the ball and is constantly losing the battle of field position.
I predict a chippy first half, but a Ravens' pull-away in the third quarter, which should lead to Tyrod Taylor receiving some solid garbage-time snaps.
Player of the Game Prediction: Joe Flacco
While much of the analysis above has focused on Leftwich's near-inevitable failings against the Ravens, that should lead to a statistical gold mine for Flacco. Extra possessions, a tired-out defense, an emotionally broken-down opponent and a number of short-field opportunities should lead to some quick aerial scores.
The Ravens will need Flacco to be excellent, and he should rise to meet the occasion.
Final Score Prediction: Ravens 32; Steelers 16
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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