Little needs to be said about what’s at stake when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh for the first time since their crushing 31-24 defeat in the divisional playoffs last January. The winner of Sunday night’s game gains control of the division — with apologies to the unproven Bengals — and emerges with the psychological upper hand should these teams meet again in January.
Sunday night marks the 32nd all-time meeting between the Ravens and Steelers in the regular season, with Pittsburgh holding an 18-13 edge. The Ravens will attempt to win their second straight regular-season game at Heinz Field and only their sixth game ever in Pittsburgh. Eight of the last 10 meetings (postseason included) between the teams have been decided by one score or less despite the Ravens’ 35-7 beating of the Steelers in Week 1.
The Ravens are 3-1 on Sunday Night Football during the John Harbaugh era, but Sunday marks the first time Baltimore has played on the road for Sunday Night Football since the game moved to NBC in 2006.
A win would give the Ravens a 6-2 start for the second consecutive year and for the third time in team history (2006 being the other).
Here’s what to expect when the Ravens travel to Heinz Field to take on the Steelers to complete the season series …
1. Ray Rice will gain enough yardage to offset the Steelers’ edge in the passing game. The Ravens bulled over the Pittsburgh defense to the tune of 170 rushing yards as an offensive line playing together for the first time exceeded even the most optimistic expectations in the regular-season opener. Ben Grubbs hasn’t played since then as the group has failed to reach that same level of dominance in his absence. The left guard will be a game-time decision, but it’s no coincidence Grubbs appears primed to return against the Steelers. Pittsburgh holds the edge at quarterback, but the Ravens can offset Ben Roethlisberger’s advantage over Joe Flacco by being productive enough on the ground to help control the clock and keep the Steelers’ passing game off the field. Pittsburgh’s run defense has improved, but Arizona and New England aren’t exactly dominant ground teams. Arian Foster ran for 155 yards and Maurice Jones-Drew gained 96 against the Pittsburgh defense, so it’s not out of the question for Rice to run for 80 yards on the ground — in addition to what he provides as a receiver out of the backfield.
2. The Ravens will win the turnover battle against a Pittsburgh defense that hasn’t created takeaways all season. Unsurprisingly, the teams find themselves occupying the top two spots in total defense, but a dramatic difference lies in their ability to create turnovers. Baltimore’s 16 takeaways is tied for second in the AFC while the Steelers have only forced three turnovers through their first eight games, last in the NFL. On the flip side, the Ravens and Steelers have each turned the ball over 13 times. Critics will point to Flacco’s inability to protect the football, but the Steelers’ preference to throw plays right into the hands of the Ravens, who are healthier in the secondary than they’ve been all season. If Flacco and the Ravens can make just enough plays in the passing game, it will force Roethlisberger to take more chances, increasing the likelihood of turnovers. The Ravens have the better, more opportunistic defense, and it will pay dividends on Sunday night.
3. The Steelers will miss LaMarr Woodley more than they’ll benefit from the return of James Harrison — at least in this game. After playing coy on his Twitter page earlier in the week, Harrison returns to the lineup after missing four games with a fractured orbital bone. However, Woodley’s nine sacks had him in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion before the linebacker suffered a hamstring injury last week. Harrison is as tough as they come, but the month-long layoff will leave some rust, and the Ravens can devote more attention to him without Woodley on the opposite edge. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie played his best game of the season against Harrison in the season opener, so the Ravens are hoping for a similar, motivated effort in Pittsburgh.
4. Terrell Suggs will continue to own the Steelers no matter what they try to throw at him. Max protection, tight end help, and double teams don’t matter when the Pro Bowl linebacker takes on Pittsburgh. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians called Suggs the best pass rusher he’s ever had to face, and the ninth-year linebacker has sacked Roethlisberger more often than any other defender in the NFL. After accumulating six sacks in his last two games (one of those coming last January) against Pittsburgh, it’s clear the Steelers have no answers in stopping his harassment of Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh will hope veteran Max Starks’ insertion at left tackle will have an impact after Suggs abused Jonathan Scott in Baltimore, but he’ll need as much help as possible to keep Suggs’ shadow away from the quarterback. Playing in prime time, Suggs will collect two sacks of Roethlisberger and create a critical turnover in the second half.
5. It won’t match their 35-7 showing in Baltimore, but the Ravens will sweep Pittsburgh for just the second time in the 16-year history of the series, winning a 21-20 nail-biter. While it’s true the Steelers are entering Sunday having played better football than the Ravens recently, many have been too quick to dismiss what transpired in the regular-season opener. Yes, it’s extremely unlikely the Ravens force seven turnovers again, but the Baltimore defense completely overwhelmed the Pittsburgh offense in the most recent meeting between the teams. If we’ve learned anything about the Ravens so far this season, it’s their reputation for playing to the level of their competition. There’s never any shortage of motivation and passion when they meet the hated Steelers. If — and it’s a major one — Flacco can take care of the football and make just a few big plays at opportune times (215 passing yards and a touchdown pass), the defense will take care of the rest by pressuring Roethlisberger and creating a critical turnover that swings the game in the Ravens’ favor.