The Baltimore Ravens (7-2) will travel to Pittsburgh Sunday night to take on the Steelers (6-3) in what could be a division-defining game for the 2012 season.
The matchup is the first of two that will occur over the next three weeks. The winner Sunday night may hold their division destiny in their hands.
However, one injury defines this matchup.
The Steelers' attempt to pull even with the Ravens in the AFC North will have to be completed without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is out with shoulder and rib injuries. Pittsburgh will start Byron Leftwich at quarterback Sunday night.
A win for the Ravens over Leftwich would give Baltimore a two-game cushion in the division—plus the tie-breaker—with six games to go in the season.
In the following slides, we break down the matchups that will decide Sunday night's AFC North clash.
Without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers' passing game will likely take a backseat to a running game that has actually carried Pittsburgh over the last month.
Using a mixed-bag of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, the Steelers rushed for an average of 140 yards the last four games. Coincidentally, all four games resulted in wins for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are now getting back starter Rashard Mendenhall Sunday night, which means offensive coordinator Todd Haley should have a three-headed rushing attack available against a defense giving up 132 yards a game on the ground this season.
The Ravens are no longer a dink-and-dunk, grind-it-out passing offense. Joe Flacco leads a vertical attack that features Smith (6', 205 lbs.) as its go-to option down field.
In nine games, Smith has 548 yards on just 31 catches—including 10 for 20 or more yards. He has a catch of 20 or more yards in seven of nine games in 2012.
Smith isn't the only vertical option for the Steelers to account for, either. Last week against the Ravens, Flacco completed passes of 20 or more yards to five different receivers.
Smith is the downfield anchor Pittsburgh needs to account for on every play, but this is an offense that can pick up yards in bunches to a number of receivers.
If the Steelers cannot generate more pressure from the edges of their pass rush Sunday night, Flacco and the Ravens' passing game will likely continue their successful run of late in this rivalry.
According to Pro Football Focus, outside linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley contributed just two total pressures (two hurries from Woodley) against the Kansas City Chiefs Monday night. That must change.
Flacco averaged almost 250 yards without an interception in two games against the Steelers last season.
Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele, the Ravens' two offensive tackles, need to be beat in the passing game for that brief trend to reverse.
According to PFF, the two have allowed 48 total pressures and six sacks over 358 pass-blocking snaps this season. Certainly not bad numbers, but the Steelers should feel somewhat confident in getting pressure on Flacco Sunday night.
Byron Leftwich is an experienced backup quarterback, but he must stay within the confines of himself and the Steelers offense Sunday night. While most backup quarterbacks are not expected to win football games, there have been hundreds of cases where the blame for a loss rests solely on the backup's shoulders.
To avoid becoming the next, Leftwich has to protect the football. His long delivery and limited mobility make him a potential turnover machine if he starts forcing or pressing the action. That would be disaster for Pittsburgh.
If the Steelers start turning over the football—whether it's interceptions or strip sacks—the Ravens could run away with a big win.
So many times in these division games—where every look is well-scouted before hand—the little things end up making the biggest difference. Special teams could be that factor Sunday night.
The Ravens have a dangerous weapon in returner Jacoby Jones, and a couple of big plays in the kicking game from him could tilt this AFC North clash in Baltimore's favor.
Jones, a castaway from the Houston Texans, has two kick returns for scores this season, plus a punt-return average of nearly 10. Overall, Jones has 655 total return yards this season.
If the Steelers want to pull off this upset at home, they'll have to keep Jones in check—both on kicks and punts—for 60 minutes.