Most experts would agree that watching the Steelers go 3-0 heading into today's game against Baltimore, was something they weren't expecting. Winning three straight games without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is exactly what Pittsburgh did, playing tremendously well on defense in every game.
However, Pittsburgh will need more than a great defensive performance when they take on the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) and their No. 1 ranked defense, today at Heinz Field.
The Ravens survived a rocky start to the 2010 season. Their offense wasn't clicking, and Joe Flacco managed to play the worst football of his young career in Cincinnati. Through three games, turnovers plagued an offense that was touted as one of the NFL's best. Thankfully their defense was ready to play, as it took more than 10 quarters of football before an opponent managed to score a touchdown on Baltimore.
As for the Steelers, they'll face their toughest test of the season today...toppling a divisional foe who has their eyes set on sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
In order for the Steelers to accomplish this, quarterback Charlie Batch must play 60 minutes of mistake-free football. The 13-year pro who's been a spot starter for the Steelers since 2002, will be playing with all the pressure on his shoulders.
In eight years with Pittsburgh, Batch has started in just five games, yielding a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio. That won't get it done against a Baltimore defense that prides itself on forcing turnovers in the passing game.
Perhaps the most telling stat that could predict the outcome of this game is the rate at which Pittsburgh runs the ball. Without a solid option at quarterback, the Steelers have opted to run on 59 percent of plays called from scrimmage. This feeds right into the Ravens' biggest strength...their ability to stop the run.
Pittsburgh's running back Rashard Mendenhall has produced solid numbers up until today (332 yds, two TDs), but he hasn't faced a defensive line as stout as Baltimore's.
Mendenhall has yet to rush for 100 yards against the Ravens in his career.
Another stat that doesn't bode well today for the Steelers in a matchup of this caliber, is their passing attack that ranks dead last in the NFL (113 ypg). Sure the Steelers are without their star quarterback, but looking strictly at this type of output, it's not great, and it won't be enough to beat a disciplined Ravens' secondary.
Could Pittsburgh be in for a let down in front of their own fans at Heinz Field today? Even though Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco is 1-4 all-time against the Steelers, and 3-11 against playoff teams, you still need to look at who's taking the field today...not yesterday.
The Ravens' offense is finally gelling, and their defense might prove to be too much for an unproven quarterback in Charlie Batch.
However, looking at this rivalry, and the fact that both defenses are playing at a high level, it should be a close game. As a matter of fact, the last four contests between these two teams have been decided by four points or less. All of those games featured Ben Roethlisberger as starting quarterback for the Steelers.
The fact that Pittsburgh is essentially playing without a proven quarterback, is enough to give a slight edge to the Ravens in this contest.
If Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens' offense can limit turnovers to one or less, their chance of winning this pivotal matchup for first place in the AFC North is excellent.
Some notable injuries that will play a part in the outcome of this game include Chris Hoke, DT of the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the opposite side of the football, tackle Jared Gaither remains out with a back injury.
Rice was a game-time decision, leaving Pittsburgh very little time to come up with a game plan for the versatile back.
The Ravens make a lot of good teams look bad, and there's no reason for this to change today. Making Pittsburgh look "bad" might equate to a 10-point win for Baltimore.
If the Ravens pull off the close win, it certainly won't be an upset victory, although the media will make it out as such.
Baltimore is a team with high expectations. Anything short of a Super Bowl appearance would be a disappointment.
Notching a win today against the Steelers is an important step in meeting their expectations.
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