On Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens could pull off one of the more difficult coups in the AFC North—sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second season in a row, something they've never done before.
Of course, it's been a bit easier for the Ravens this season, considering that neither of the matchups have required them to face Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is still recovering from rib and shoulder injuries he sustained in Week 10. Regardless, a win is a win, and four of them over the Steelers in back-to-back seasons still carries with it serious bragging rights.
The Ravens cannot underestimate the Steelers, though it will be Charlie Batch under center rather than Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh still has a strong running game (last week's four fumbles notwithstanding) and the league's best defense, so there's no reason for Baltimore to take this contest lightly regardless of the quarterback changes.
Here are two things the Ravens must accomplish on Sunday if they want to complete the sweep of their most-hated rivals and clinch themselves a playoff berth.
Limit Charlie Batch's Effectiveness
Truth be told, Charlie Batch did enough last week in the Steelers' loss to the Cleveland Browns to limit his own effectiveness, completing 20 of his 34 passes for 199 yards and throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns. And at nearly 38 years old and with few starts to his name as a member of the Steelers, clearly Pittsburgh isn't going to cast him in the hero's role this week.
But getting to Batch will still be the best way to get the Steelers offense off the field quickly. That means Baltimore has to ready its pass rush.
Last week, the Ravens sacked San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers six times in what was their most effective pass-rushing performance of the season. Granted, that had almost as much to do with the Chargers having one of the worst pass-protecting offensive lines in the league (Rivers' 32 sacks is the second-highest total in the league) as it did the Ravens defense, but it provides Baltimore something to build upon in preparation for the Steelers this week.
Pittsburgh's offensive line hasn't been as porous this season as in years past, but it's also been less injury-plagued—that is, up until now. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has been sidelined for weeks with an ankle injury, was placed on injured reserve this week. His backup, rookie Mike Adams, is himself shelved for Week 13 with an ankle injury of his own.
Left guard Willie Colon has a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday's practice, and if he cannot play, current starting center Maurkice Pouncey could move over to guard, with Doug Legursky taking the center job for the game.
While offensive line shuffling is nothing new to the Steelers, it didn't work out all that well for Roethlisberger in previous seasons, and a relative statue like Batch could be in for a rough day if his protection doesn't hold.
Getting to Batch will be easier than keeping Pittsburgh's receivers covered. Antonio Brown is projected to return from the ankle injury that's had him out for the past three weeks, Mike Wallace is still a very real scoring threat despite him having a less-productive season than last year, Emmanuel Sanders was one of Batch's biggest targets last week, and the newly signed Plaxico Burress cannot be counted out in the end zone.
With cornerback Jimmy Smith out this week as he continues to recover from sports hernia surgery, Lardarius Webb done for the year with a torn ACL, strong safety Bernard Pollard not practicing on Wednesday with a chest injury and Ed Reed still dealing with his shoulder issues, the Ravens' coverage resources are being stretched thin. Facing Batch rather than Roethlisberger makes every Ravens defender's job easier, and the offensive line rework is an added bonus.
The Offensive Home-Field Advantage
Despite Joe Flacco's late-game yardage explosion last week, the Ravens aren't generally that productive of a passing offense on the road.
Flacco has completed 66.1 percent of his passes at home, averages 319.6 yards, has thrown 10 touchdowns and three interceptions and has been sacked eight times. In contrast, he's completed only 55.3 percent of his passes when on the road, averages 185.7 passing yards per game, has thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions and has been sacked 18 times.
In the Ravens' first meeting with the Steelers two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Flacco went 20-of-32 for 164 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, with two sacks. If the trend holds when it comes to Flacco's home performance versus how he plays on the road, he should have a more productive outing this time around.
He needs to be wary of Pittsburgh's defense, of course. The main reason why they lead the league in yards allowed is because of their prowess in defending the pass. They're tops in the league when it comes to passing yards allowed, and teams just aren't throwing the ball when playing them. This shouldn't deter Flacco from passing, of course, but it needs to dictate to whom he throws it and when.
The key is to move the ball methodically and not to take many deep shots. The point is to keep moving the chains and dominate in time of possession, not to throw the perfect 30-yard touchdown strike, drive after drive.
Because of the Steelers' talents in cutting off the deeper end of the field, opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt, but they're also getting 9.8 yards per completion. As such, Flacco needs to concentrate his throws in the zero-to-19 yard range, and considering his particular aptitude at it, over the middle of the field.
Checkdowns to Ray Rice and short passes to Anquan Boldin aren't flashy, but they get the job done against secondaries as good as Pittsburgh's. Whatever the Ravens can do to get into scoring position, they must, and in this game, the deep ball won't do it. Dink-and-dunk moves the chains—just ask Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley—and reduces the risk of Flacco making critical errors.