The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be two teams moving in opposite directions, but a single injury altered that thinking on Sunday.
A knee injury to Ben Roethlisberger not only puts the Steelers (2-1) in a holding pattern for at least the next few weeks while trying to survive with backup Michael Vick at the helm, but it gives the winless Ravens hope that they can go to Heinz Field on a short week and potentially steal their first victory of 2015. Of course, it won’t be easy for Baltimore with starting tight end Crockett Gillmore, starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, starting defensive end Chris Canty, and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman all ruled out for Thursday night.
Searching for answers and knowing only three NFL teams have rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the NFL playoffs since 1990, the Ravens’ biggest enemy at this point might be themselves as a season full of high expectations has instead started in nightmare fashion for John Harbaugh’s team. It’s officially uncharted territory for a team that had never started 0-3 in franchise history and has made the playoffs in six of the last seven years.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Pittsburgh for the 39th time in their regular-season history as they own a 17-21 mark. The teams split a pair of games at Heinz Field last season, but Baltimore prevailed 30-17 over the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game last January.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 5-2 in Thursday night primetime games under Harbaugh …
1. Pittsburgh will control the tempo of the game by handing the ball to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams a combined 35 times. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn’t going to allow Vick to take many chances, leaving plenty of opportunities for these running backs. The Ravens rank fourth in the league allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but the Steelers will spread out the defense to create just enough room for Bell and Williams to keep Vick in manageable down-and-distance situations.
2. Maxx Williams will catch his first touchdown and provide the Ravens with another threat behind Steve Smith. Considering how many issues the Pittsburgh defense has had with tight ends so far, Gillmore’s absence couldn’t have come at a worse time, but Williams will find room against linebackers who are poor in pass coverage. The bigger question will be how he and fellow rookie Nick Boyle fare as blockers with the Ravens desperately needing to get their struggling running game in order.
3. Brandon Williams will pick up his first sack of the season and create problems in the Pittsburgh backfield. There have been few bright spots on the Ravens’ 26th-ranked scoring defense, but Williams has been a force and the unit’s best player. With Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey out, the third-year nose tackle should dominate Cody Wallace by collecting his first quarterback takedown as well as a few other tackles for a loss to force more Pittsburgh runs to the perimeter on Thursday night.
4. Antonio Brown will still collect 100 yards receiving and a touchdown without Roethlisberger throwing to him. The Steelers likely won’t have Brown running as many downfield routes, but they will use bubble screens and other ways to get the ball to the playmaker in open space to put pressure on tacklers. It will be interesting to see if Dean Pees elects to have Jimmy Smith shadow Brown, but the Ravens better be ready to give him help against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.
5. Vick will manage the game effectively while the Ravens lack the “it” factor to do what it takes in a 24-16 loss. I fully expect a Harbaugh-coached team to compete in this one and I’m tempted to pick the Ravens to win with Roethlisberger out, but last week was the game in which they needed to pull themselves off the mat and they still couldn’t do it. Many have cited Baltimore’s 5-1 record against Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger hasn’t played, but two active defensive players — Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan — took part in that last win in 2012, a game Brown also missed. The defense will be a little better than the last two weeks and the offense will find ways to move the ball, but the recurring theme of not being good enough in the fourth quarter will cost Baltimore again in a close one.