Last year, the Ravens swept Pittsburgh and won the division. This season, Pittsburgh is looking to flip the script on Baltimore and get back to dominating this closely-fought rivalry.
Here’s a look at keys to a Steelers victory.
Pittsburgh will be without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least this week.
His shoulder sprain couldn’t come at a worse time for the Steelers as they prepare to face their arch-rivals from Baltimore twice in a three-week span.
A key factor in this game will be how well the Steelers protect Byron Leftwich, Roethlisberger’s replacement.
Leftwich has a strong arm, perhaps stronger than Roethlisberger’s, but he is extremely immobile and has a lengthy windup when he throws.
Those factors will limit his effectiveness if the offensive line collapses. They’ve done a good job in pass blocking all year, but will have to adjust to a different style of quarterback.
Leftwich is also injury prone. Charlie Batch will need to be ready just in case.
Hopefully that doesn’t become an issue.
The rushing attack for the Steelers has been inconsistent at best.
Pittsburgh has come on stronger in recent weeks, but there is still undoubtedly room for improvement.
Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman will likely carry to majority of the load once again and both are equal to the task.
Dwyer might be the better runner here because he operates better than Redman when space is at a premium.
We’ll talk about the Ravens defensive woes later, but regardless of how they perform, Pittsburgh needs the running game more than ever with Ben Roethlisberger down.
Byron Leftwich won’t be able to execute the quick passing attack that has substituted for a running game with the same level of effectiveness, so the traditional running attack will have to return.
The success or failure of the offense in this game may rest with the runners.
The longer Pittsburgh can hold onto the ball and the more points they can score, the harder it will be for a suddenly offensively-geared Ravens team to take a win on Sunday.
Equally important to having a successful and consistent day on the ground is preventing the Ravens from doing so.
This year, the only person who seems to be able to stop Ray Rice appears to be offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Cameron inexplicably veers away from his best player at times. Pittsburgh can only hope that he’ll do it again and instead fight the league’s best pass defense.
If Rice can have success, the Steelers could be in trouble.
Pittsburgh hasn’t been very good at stopping the run and just allowed Jamaal Charles to gash them consistently on Monday night. Rice is 10 times better and a dual threat.
If the Steelers can stop Rice or if Rice is stopped by his own coaches, the Steelers have a good chance of winning this game. This goes back to winning the battle in time of possession.
The Ravens have become a team that wins with offense.
While this may be good news given that the Steelers will be without their best offensive player, it is also bad news because the Pittsburgh defense isn’t really built to stop this team.
As much as fans on both sides hate to hear this, these two teams are so much alike sometimes. Consider they’ve both had a historic reputation for defensive greatness and a controlled ground game.
They’re now passing teams that seem to, at least in 2012, be surviving their defensive issues.
Joe Flacco may not be on the same level as Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady, but you have to give the guy some credit. He’s been pretty good over his career.
This year has been a little inconsistent, but lately he’s been better.
The Steelers need to watch how Houston dismantled the Baltimore offense and try to emulate that. It starts with keeping Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin away from the ball.
If they do that, they can force Flacco into mistakes.
This rivalry is chock full of games that end with few points and razor-thin margins. That’s just how this goes.
The blowout in Week 1 of last season is an exception. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this game is won as the clock ticks down in regulation or on a last-ditch overtime drive.
The key in games like that is to be the first team to score. You gain momentum that way and force a team to play to catch up to you. That can force a team off their game.
The Ravens are well-coached, so don’t expect them to get off track, but an early lead, especially if it can be extended and held, will go a long way toward victory.
The other part of winning the close games is to be the last team with the football.
That can’t be predicted, so being the first team to score is that much more important.
Joe Flacco rattles rather easily in my opinion. He always looks calm, but he doesn’t play that way when rushers get in his face.
A concerted attack on the offensive line could get him off his game.
The Steelers have routinely been able to beat Flacco once they get him to make mistakes. That doesn’t happen without pressure.
The Steelers have been improving in that department now that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are at full speed.
The most impressive player from their win against Kansas City on Monday was Lawrence Timmons.
He’ll be a key here as well. The Steelers need pressure up the middle in Flacco’s face. A few good runs at him from there will give him happy feet.
After that, the only thing the Steelers need to do is force fumbles or take away interceptions. It all starts up front with beating the offensive line and scaring Flacco into errors.
The best medicine for a struggling rushing attack is a terrible run defense. That’s what will happen in this game.
The Ravens get the benefit of facing a Steelers defense that has been bending an awful lot against opposing runners.
The Steelers, however, get a Ravens defense that hasn’t been able to consistently stop anyone. This could be a huge game for Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
This is something Todd Haley should look to exploit early and often.
That doesn’t mean doing what was done in the second half on Monday night, where Haley called run play after run play on every down and didn’t even disguise his intent.
What it does mean is to use a couple early passes to back off the defense a bit and then turn the runners loose.
If they get past an intial set of run stoppers, they’ll be into the open against a team that allows a ton of yards after contact.
Building on that last part about exploiting the run defense, smart play calling by Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau will win this game for the Steelers.
As a rule, Haley should allow Leftwich to throw deep.
As Ben Roethlisberger adapted to Haley’s style, Haley must now adapt slightly for a quarterback who is quite different.
Given that long delivery, I’d recommend some crossing routes and double moves to confuse the coverage and some extra snaps in the shotgun to give Leftwich time to throw.
Defensively, it’s about creating as much pressure as possible while still maintaining coverage on the team’s three big passing targets.
Pressure can neutralize any receiver by taking away the quarterback’s ability to read a defense, but Dick LeBeau can’t afford to let his corners sit back in zones against this team.
Consider how things would have gone if Matt Cassel’s receivers were able to bring down several of his passes right to them.
They would’ve had space to run. That can’t happen here. The Ravens don’t make such mistakes.
If these coordinators can call a good game, it will make it difficult for the boys in purple. If they falter, the home team is in hot water.
The Ravens won big last year because they were more emotionally invested in the game.
Especially in the first meeting of 2011, the Steelers seemed flat and unmotivated. The Ravens were out to prove something.
This goes beyond Sunday night’s game too. Last year, the Ravens struggled against some other teams seemingly because they’d spent their emotional reserves on Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has done the same thing at times.
Neither team can afford that. This race is going to the wire as usual. But the Steelers really need to come into this game ready to play.
They can’t be worried about the quarterback position. They can’t be worried about anything. They have to come in with the determination that, when the final gun sounds, they’ll be the team with the most points.
They have to play their best game of the year on Sunday night. There’s no beating Baltimore if a team comes at them with less than it’s level best.
That’s a message I’m sure Mike Tomlin is preaching this week to his team. We’ll see Sunday night how well it’s been heard.
If you look at the Steelers’ results this year, you’ll see three losses that came after the Steelers had a chance to win the game.
In fact, the Steelers have lost four games in which they’ve led late.
They almost lost on Monday night. That game had no business going to overtime.
A 1-7 Chiefs team that celebrated ever little victory like they’d won the Super Bowl should’ve been handled easily. Instead, it was a hard-fought battle.
That can’t happen here. This game will be close unless one team blinks.
The Steelers have every chance of getting the early lead, playing with a grim determination and surviving their missing quarterback. But for that to result in a win, they have to finish the game.
This has been a problem for a few years now. The Steelers lead and look invincible and suddenly they fall apart.
They get protective of the lead and end up losing it. It goes back, as far as I can tell to Super Bowl XLIII where it took a last-ditch drive to win the game.
Here, the Steelers have to do what they did against the New York Giants two weeks ago. They have to take control and then keep it.
That means they have to remember that the fourth quarter, when you have a lead, is the most crucial time to play your best football.
Do that, and the Ravens will fall.