On Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens could pull off one of the more difficult coups in the AFC North—sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second season in a row, something they've never done before.
Of course, it's been a bit easier for the Ravens this season, considering that neither of the matchups have required them to face Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is still recovering from rib and shoulder injuries he sustained in Week 10. Regardless, a win is a win, and four of them over the Steelers in back-to-back seasons still carries with it serious bragging rights.
The Ravens cannot underestimate the Steelers, though it will be Charlie Batch under center rather than Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh still has a strong running game (last week's four fumbles notwithstanding) and the league's best defense, so there's no reason for Baltimore to take this contest lightly regardless of the quarterback changes.
Here are two things the Ravens must accomplish on Sunday if they want to complete the sweep of their most-hated rivals and clinch themselves a playoff berth.
Limit Charlie Batch's Effectiveness
But getting to Batch will still be the best way to get the Steelers offense off the field quickly. That means Baltimore has to ready its pass rush.
Pittsburgh's offensive line hasn't been as porous this season as in years past, but it's also been less injury-plagued—that is, up until now. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has been sidelined for weeks with an ankle injury, was placed on injured reserve this week. His backup, rookie Mike Adams, is himself shelved for Week 13 with an ankle injury of his own.
While offensive line shuffling is nothing new to the Steelers, it didn't work out all that well for Roethlisberger in previous seasons, and a relative statue like Batch could be in for a rough day if his protection doesn't hold.
Getting to Batch will be easier than keeping Pittsburgh's receivers covered. Antonio Brown is projected to return from the ankle injury that's had him out for the past three weeks, Mike Wallace is still a very real scoring threat despite him having a less-productive season than last year, Emmanuel Sanders was one of Batch's biggest targets last week, and the newly signed Plaxico Burress cannot be counted out in the end zone.
With cornerback Jimmy Smith out this week as he continues to recover from sports hernia surgery, Lardarius Webb done for the year with a torn ACL, strong safety Bernard Pollard not practicing on Wednesday with a chest injury and Ed Reed still dealing with his shoulder issues, the Ravens' coverage resources are being stretched thin. Facing Batch rather than Roethlisberger makes every Ravens defender's job easier, and the offensive line rework is an added bonus.
The Offensive Home-Field Advantage
Flacco has completed 66.1 percent of his passes at home, averages 319.6 yards, has thrown 10 touchdowns and three interceptions and has been sacked eight times. In contrast, he's completed only 55.3 percent of his passes when on the road, averages 185.7 passing yards per game, has thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions and has been sacked 18 times.
He needs to be wary of Pittsburgh's defense, of course. The main reason why they lead the league in yards allowed is because of their prowess in defending the pass. They're tops in the league when it comes to passing yards allowed, and teams just aren't throwing the ball when playing them. This shouldn't deter Flacco from passing, of course, but it needs to dictate to whom he throws it and when.
Because of the Steelers' talents in cutting off the deeper end of the field, opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt, but they're also getting 9.8 yards per completion. As such, Flacco needs to concentrate his throws in the zero-to-19 yard range, and considering his particular aptitude at it, over the middle of the field.
Checkdowns to Ray Rice and short passes to Anquan Boldin aren't flashy, but they get the job done against secondaries as good as Pittsburgh's. Whatever the Ravens can do to get into scoring position, they must, and in this game, the deep ball won't do it. Dink-and-dunk moves the chains—just ask Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley—and reduces the risk of Flacco making critical errors.