Long before Kansas City linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston flattened quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night, we knew this year’s two-act drama of Ravens-Steelers would be different from those witnessed in previous years.
The previous elder statesmen of the best rivalry in the NFL, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, will be nowhere to be found on the Heinz Field gridiron Sunday night. Lewis will be relegated to the sideline as he recovers from triceps surgery while Ward now only runs his mouth as an NBC analyst instead of as the antagonist hated most by Baltimore fans.
In fact, neither Lewis nor Ward will be featured in a meaningful Ravens-Steelers game for the first time since before the NFL’s best rivalry actually mattered.
(Both players missed the 2007 season finale played in Baltimore, but that contest was of little consequence to either team.)
Health concerns are abundant on both sides as Steelers strong safety and defensive leader Troy Polamalu is likely to miss his sixth straight game and speedy wide receiver Antonio Brown is questionable to play. In addition to Lewis’ absence, the Ravens have already lost top cornerback Lardarius Webb for the season and are leaning on a banged-up Haloti Ngata and recovering Terrell Suggs to lead their defense.
Of course, all those absences and injuries took a backseat after Roethlisberger suffered a right shoulder sprain that leaves him questionable for Sunday night’s nationally-televised game against the Ravens. Make no mistake, his potential absence transforms the Ravens from the underdog in Pittsburgh to a group with a great chance to beat a Steelers team that could be led by backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who’s made a total of five starts in the last five seasons.
Should Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury keep him out, it will compel me to pick the Ravens to win after previously thinking the Steelers were playing too well in recent weeks to predict a Baltimore victory in Pittsburgh.
Inflated optimism is understandable and appropriate, but if you think the Ravens are going to Pittsburgh and moonwalking their way to victory, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed.
With the 2011 season-opening 35-7 win being the lone outlier, nothing has come easy against Pittsburgh in the John Harbaugh era. Of the teams’ last 10 meetings (including two postseason games), all but two have been decided by seven or fewer points.
History even suggests the Ravens won’t flatten the Steelers on Sunday night if Roethlisberger is sidelined after he sat out two other times in recent years.
In 2009, it was Dennis Dixon — yes, the same quarterback the Ravens cut from their practice squad earlier this month before he was re-signed Tuesday — who nearly led the Steelers to an upset in Baltimore before the Ravens prevailed in overtime. A year later, veteran Charlie Batch was in line for a win over the Ravens before Joe Flacco threw a game-winning touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the final minute.
The last time I checked, Roethlisberger isn’t a member of the league’s top-ranked defense and that’s why no one should be tallying a victory just yet for a Ravens team averaging only 17.5 points per game in four road contests. The Steelers currently rank sixth against the run and first against the pass as Flacco and the Baltimore offense will need to turn in a strong performance at Heinz Field in order to win there for the third straight time in the regular season.
“It was greatly exaggerated, no doubt,” said Harbaugh when asked about the perceived demise of the Pittsburgh defense earlier this year. “They are playing great. They are the No. 1 defense in the league – run, pass, big plays, sacks; they are still getting sacks. It’s just a premier defense, no doubt.”
As impressive as the Ravens looked in scoring a franchise-record 55 points against Oakland in Week 10, are you really that confident as they face the Pittsburgh defense on the road?
Two weeks ago, the Steelers made New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning look sickly in his home stadium, holding the two-time Super Bowl winner to just 125 passing yards and an interception in a 24-20 comeback victory for Pittsburgh.
Offensively, Leftwich wouldn’t figure to pose much of a threat through the air, but the Steelers have found a formidable running game in recent weeks with the combination of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman turning in three 100-yard rushing performances in the last four games. And while the Ravens’ run defense has improved over the last two weeks, it still ranks 26th in the NFL and will be tested by the Steelers’ improved offensive line.
Pittsburgh may not have their star quarterback on Sunday night, but plenty of others will be waiting for the Ravens, including James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller, and Mike Wallace.
Would Roethlisberger’s absence swing the advantage in the Ravens’ favor come Sunday night?
But if you think the Ravens are just going to cruise to victory in Pittsburgh, you haven’t been paying attention to this rivalry.