Some of the luster has been lost in this one with the absence of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but the Ravens look to win their third straight regular-season contest at Heinz Field and seize overwhelming control in the AFC North.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 15-18 all-time against Pittsburgh in the regular season …
1. The tight ends will play a major role for both teams. The reemergence of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in last week’s 55-20 win over Oakland couldn’t have come at a better time as the Ravens play five of their final seven games against 2011 playoff teams. The Steelers have relied a great deal on blitzes from inside linebackers Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons to pressure the quarterback, which could leave the middle of the field open for Pitta and Dickson on third down. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Byron Leftwich will depend on Heath Miller to help move the chains with short passes, and Ravens linebackers haven’t done a great job covering tight ends this season.
2. The Steelers will have the edge in time of possession with the more effective running game on Sunday night. Pittsburgh’s running game has been inconsistent, but the return of Rashard Mendenhall gives the Steelers a three-headed attack against the Ravens’ 26th-ranked run defense. The Baltimore defensive line has a banged-up Haloti Ngata and could be without both Pernell McPhee (doubtful) and Terrence Cody (questionable). Pittsburgh may not run all over the Ravens, but the Steelers will be successful enough to control the clock and limit the number of possessions for Baltimore. The Ravens will also avoid stacking the box in fear of Leftwich taking a deep shot with Mike Wallace or Emmanuel Sanders with no safety help. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will run often enough with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to keep the Steelers defense honest, but Pittsburgh is sixth against the run and limited Rice’s yards in last season’s game in Pittsburgh.
3. Justin Tucker won’t blink in his first trip to Heinz Field. The rookie has been terrific all season — going 17-for-18 — but faces his biggest challenge to date kicking in Pittsburgh where the winds swirl in the open end of the stadium. The 22-year-old hasn’t been fazed by pressure all season, and his straight kicks won’t be affected by wind as opposed to kickers who use draw or fade approaches. The forecast for Sunday night appears to be favorable (low 40s and minimal wind), so weather shouldn’t be too much of a factor for either kicker. If the game comes down to a late attempt, Tucker has shown no reason for Ravens fans to be concerned. He’ll make a big second-half field goal to finish off a scoring drive.
4. The team that wins the battle on third down will prevail in this one. In their two meetings last season, the Ravens went a combined 21-for-37 on third down while Pittsburgh was only 10-for-21. Baltimore won both games after winning the battle on third down in each contest. The Steelers will use their running game to set up third-and-short opportunities with a rusty Leftwich while the Ravens need third-and-manageable situations to utilize wide receiver Anquan Boldin and their tight ends. The Steelers possess the top-ranked third-down offense in the NFL, but you can throw that number out the window with the absence of Roethlisberger’s talents and improvisation. The Ravens have converted only 36.1 percent of third-down opportunities this season (20th in the league) and will need to be better in that department if they’re to come away with another win in Pittsburgh.
5. Joe Flacco will be the difference as the Ravens collect a narrow 20-17 victory at Heinz Field. Flacco has been the difference-maker in each of the Ravens’ last two regular-season wins in Pittsburgh as he’s orchestrated last-second touchdown drives for comeback victories. The fifth-year quarterback doesn’t need to have a perfect game, but he needs to step up his play on the road after modest progress against Cleveland in his last start away from M&T Bank Stadium. The criticism could be at an all-time high should he play poorly in Pittsburgh and the Ravens lose on Sunday night, and a good portion of it would be justified. Flacco said after last week’s win that he and the Ravens have played well on the road when they’ve needed to in the past, and this week certainly qualifies for that category. I’ll take him at his word to get the job done with an overmatched Leftwich on the opposing side. A touchdown pass, 200 yards, and turnover-free football should be enough from Flacco for the Ravens to win a third straight regular-season game against the Steelers for only the second time in franchise history. However, it won’t be easy going up against the league’s top-ranked defense in yards allowed.