On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers host their biggest rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers are coming off their first win of the season, a Week 6 defeat of the New York Jets, and are trying to claw their way out of the 1-4 hole they sit in presently. A defeat of the Ravens would put them on the path to turn around their disappointing season and give them a much-needed divisional win.
There are many keys to a second straight Steelers win, but none is more important than keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger protected from Baltimore pass-rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Presently, the Ravens defense ranks second in the league in sacks, with 22. Of those 22, 12 have come from Suggs and Dumervil, Baltimore's two outside linebackers. Suggs has seven and Dumervil has five, both top-10 individual sack totals through six games.
At the same time, Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times in his five games—after being sacked 30 times in 13 games last season. Pittsburgh's offensive line has been porous this year, as is typical, and it has both decimated the run game and made Roethlisberger exposed to a lot of punishment.
Though not every member of the line has played poorly—guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro have positive pass-protection ratings from Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—their tackles have stood out as struggling against defensive pressure.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has a minus-one rating in pass protection, while left tackle Mike Adams has a terrible minus-10.2, accounting for four sacks of Roethlisberger, six quarterback hits and 13 hurries.
Last week, Kelvin Beachum was the Steelers' starting left tackle after Levi Brown re-injured the triceps that cost him the entire 2012 season, just days after the team acquired him in trade from the Arizona Cardinals.
With Adams inactive, the Steelers had no other option than to turn to Beachum to fill in. Beachum played well against the Jets, allowing only two quarterback hurries, though he did accrue three penalties.
Despite a fairly good performance in Week 6 and a minus-.6 pass-protection grade for the year, it appears the Steelers will be turning back to Adams at left tackle, at least for the majority of Sunday's offensive snaps. The Steelers did not sign another offensive tackle this week, with a team source saying to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac that Adams "just has to be ready to play better."
As we've seen with Adams this year, that may be easier said than done, especially when he'll be tasked with stopping Suggs. He'll need help, which could mean that tight end Heath Miller will be doing a lot of blocking on Sunday rather than catching passes as Roethlisberger's preferred safety valve.
Suggs not only has seven sacks, he also has seven quarterback hits and 13 hurries on the season. He's back to his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber form from 2011 now that he's healed from last year's partial Achilles tendon tear and December's torn right bicep.
The addition of Dumervil has only made Suggs more dangerous—now the Ravens are boasting two Pro Bowl-level pass-rushers and opposing offensive lines have to commit more resources toward stopping them. That's why the Steelers may have to get a bit creative to help out their two struggling tackles.
That may mean less Miller in pass protection and more Beachum. Miller—who has played only 181 snaps since returning in Week 3 after last year's major knee injury and only 16 as a pass protector—could be of better use to the Steelers this week in run protection and as a receiver.
Beachum has stepped in earlier this year at tight end to boost the tackles and, considering how well he's performed at many offensive line positions this year, should help out both Adams and Gilbert on an as-needed basis.
Pressure from Suggs and Dumervil doesn't just mean Roethlisberger taking more sacks and hits; it also means rushing the ball out of his hands, making him attempt throws too early and too wildly.
Roethlisberger has already thrown five interceptions this year (compared to six touchdowns) and has fumbled the ball five times. Pressure can often result in turnovers, and the Steelers cannot give up a single one if they want to best the rival Ravens.
Last week, the Steelers managed to not turn over the ball once, and, unsurprisingly, the result was their first win of the year. Roethlisberger did take three sacks and was hit eight times, but at least without Adams at left tackle, he took far less punishment than he would have otherwise.
Pairing Adams with Beachum as a big tight end could be a better option than simply substituting Beachum if Adams struggles. Despite how Beachum has handled being moved around the offensive line, he's not a natural left tackle—rather, he's an emergency option.
He was a 2012 seventh-round pick, and though draft pedigree certainly does not indicate talent, he's simply not had enough experience. Beachum, however, can help offset whatever problems Adams has in coverage, all while allowing Miller to be on the field as a receiver, giving Roethlisberger someone to quickly throw the ball to when the pressure does come.
While rotating offensive tackles and using a lineman as a tight end might be desperation moves, they are also ones the Steelers must employ to keep Roethlisberger upright and throwing against the Ravens.
The Steelers are 31st in the league in rushing yards per game, while the Ravens have the second-best rushing defense the Steelers have faced so far, ranked ninth and allowing just 98.2 rushing yards per game. Pittsburgh isn't going to magically figure out how to run the ball well.
The Steelers' yardage will, yet again, have to come from Roethlisberger and the passing game, which makes Roethlisberger a sitting duck for Dumervil and Suggs if his offensive line cannot step up. Using Beachum at tight end is one way they can improve their odds.
No matter how they try to do it, containing Baltimore's pass rush is the one thing the Steelers must get right on Sunday if they're going to beat their rival and pick up their second win of the year.