It's one of the most important weeks of the regular season for the Baltimore Ravens—Steelers week.
The Ravens travel to Pittsburgh to take on their most-loathed rivals in a battle for control of the AFC North. Though the AFC as a conference is decidedly weak this year, giving both teams more than a fighting shot of reaching the postseason, only the divisional champ carries with it the bonus of bragging rights.
The Ravens are in a good place right now, considering their 55-20 demolition of the Oakland Raiders in Week 10. However, that game was at home, while this Sunday night's contest is on the road, where Baltimore has struggled this season.
Let's take a look at where things presently stand for the Ravens as they prepare for this huge matchup.
The Good: Stopping the Run
The Ravens' treatment of the Raiders run game can be looked at two ways: glass-half-full and glass-half-empty.
The glass-half-full read of the meeting is that Baltimore allowed only 72 rushing yards to the Raiders on 24 total runs, after giving up hundreds of yards on the ground to their opponents in previous weeks. They retooled their defense to be faster and better-suited to stop the run and came up big, setting them up for continued improvements on defense.
If you prefer the glass-half-empty take on it, the Ravens merely put a stop to one of the worst rushing offenses in the league, which is no impressive feat. Further, the Raiders were without their top two backs (Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson are both sidelined with high-ankle sprains), leaving them tasked with stopping fullback Marcel Reece for most of the game. Reece a player who has had but one carry in the NFL before that game.
Regardless, there is still good to be had in what the Ravens did to stop the run, even if there was little chance the Raiders could have gotten much going on the ground anyway. There was a concerted effort to take a more rotational, situational approach with their front seven, including swapping out larger defensive tackles like Terrence Cody for lighter players like Courtney Upshaw, who saw snaps at multiple positions.
Even without Haloti Ngata on the field, Baltimore was strong against the run—something that on paper sounds ridiculous. And it wasn't an impossibility that this Raiders team could exploit the Ravens' run defense weaknesses, by the way—the Ravens still had to prepare for them and make adjustments, and the result was a resounding success.
If the Ravens are to be successful in stopping the Steelers run game this week, the approach they employed against Oakland is a good jumping-off point. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't expected to play after suffering a shoulder injury on Monday night, meaning that Pittsburgh is likely going to bank on Baltimore's weak run defense and their strong-as-of-late run game to be the primary source of their yardage.
One good game—against a poor rushing offense—doesn't necessarily mean the Ravens have fixed what ailed them on defense, but at least they have a better toolbox of ideas to put in place to hopefully keep Steelers running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer at bay.
The Bad: Putting It Together on the Road
For all that was good about the Ravens' defeat of Oakland on Sunday, there are some disconcerting points to be made about it. Yes, Baltimore put up 419 yards of total offense, including 341 passing yards by quarterback Joe Flacco, scored 55 points and were strong against the run game, but that's nothing new when Baltimore plays at home.
In their five total home games this year, the Ravens have put up 430, 503, 438, 316 and 419 yards, respectively, and haven't lost once. On the road, those yardage totals drop to 325, 298, 176 and 282, with two of those games losses.
Particularly hard hit by a trip out of Baltimore is Flacco—he's averaging 161 passing yards in away games and has thrown just three touchdowns.
The Flacco-led Ravens have consistently been a better team at home than on the road, and it's especially disconcerting that the quarterback is such a major reason for this. Baltimore has four more road games left this season including this Sunday's, and as long as the Steelers remain on their heels in the division, they'll need to win each and every one.
A road win in Pittsburgh, regardless of Roethlisberger's health, would be a statement-making game for the Ravens. Flacco doesn't need to throw for 300 yards every week for the Ravens to win, but he does need to complete more of his passes on the road and throw more touchdowns.
Ultimately, he needs to play as he does at home.
With the Ravens defense on the rocks, more responsibility has fallen to their offense, and in turn, Flacco. He needs to rise to the occasion, regardless of where he is playing. With a bad day for Flacco increasingly becoming a bad day for his team as a whole, consistency is more important than ever.
What's Next: The Pittsburgh Steelers
The Ravens face the Steelers twice in three weeks, with their first meeting coming this Sunday night in Pittsburgh. No, Ben Roethlisberger isn't likely to play, but that doesn't mean it will be an easy win without the Steelers' starting quarterback on the field.
The Ravens will have to stop the Steelers' rushing offense—which has put up 95, 158, 140 and 167 yards in each of their last four games—as well as get past their league-leading total defense, which is allowing only 265.7 yards per game.
It can be done, however.
Though the Ravens defense ranks 27th in total yards allowed, they are tops in the league when it comes to opponents scoring touchdowns out of their red-zone appearances and their offense is fifth in the league in getting touchdowns out of their own red zone stands. The Steelers, in contrast, are 19th in red-zone touchdowns as well as in red zone touchdowns allowed.
As long as the Ravens can continue this trend on both offense and defense, then they'll be in a good position to outscore and ultimately defeat the Steelers.