Justin K. Aller
The Steelers faced the less potent and fragile Ravens in Pittsburgh, but they now have to face the forceful and confident Ravens' home version. Heading into Week 13, the Steelers will need a flawless performance from a decimated offense and another outstanding defensive display to topple the streaking Ravens.
There are two Baltimore Ravens teams.
One is nearly flawless in its offensive execution. Relentlessly efficient and merciless in its downfield attack, the home version of the Ravens is arguably the toughest team to beat in the NFL.
The road version loses a huge amount of that power. The playcalling isn't as bold, the blocking not nearly as locked down. As a team, their mistakes come on the road, not at home.
The Steelers face them in Baltimore this week a battered and largely depleted unit. They should expect the Ravens to aim squarely for the jugular in their second meeting of the season Sunday.
When Baltimore has the ball
The pass protection as well as the run game has been beaten noticeably over the Ravens' last two games. Baltimore allowed five sacks in a 16-13 (OT) win on the road in San Diego in Week 12, and managed only 200 yards in a 13-10 win over Pittsburgh in Week 11. Outside of 4th-and-29 conversions, running back Ray Rice has been limited during that streak, mostly due to a lack of consistent push from the Ravens' offensive line in their stretch run game.
Rice is as explosive as any back in the NFL, but continued deficiencies from center Matt Birk, left guards Bobbie Williams and Jah Reid (who replaced an injured Williams in Week 10) and tight end Ed Dickson.
The Steelers dominated the Ravens on both edges in Week 11, but three turnovers and a lack of offensive spark doomed them. Baltimore won the game the way they have been much of this season - they forced their opponents to lose it. Their struggling offense got a huge boost on a 61-yard punt return score from November's Special Teams Player of the Month Jacoby Jones, and they got a field goal off a short field opportunity after a Mike Wallace fumble boosting them to the win - their third straight over the Steelers.
The key difference between the current Ravens team and ones in the past is offensive shortcoming usually resided in mistakes made by quarterback Joe Flacco. That doesn't appear to be the case anymore.
Despite an otherwise understated performance in Week 11 (20-for-32, 164 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions), Flacco protected the ball, didn't make any significant mistakes, empowering the Ravens' defense and special teams to pull out the victory.
Flacco has gone 107 passes without an interception and only one in his last 141 throws. Baltimore is 4-0 in that streak, one that started after the Ravens were throttled 44-13 by the Texans.
On the road.
This game will be played at M&T Bank Stadium, a place where Flacco has a 108.3 rating with 1,612 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in five games.
Expect the Ravens to ride those numbers against Pittsburgh. With a three-game cushion in the division, and a one-game lead over New England for the No. 2 seed in the AFC, odds are good they'll attack the deep secondary of the Steelers aggressively, looking to put a signature win en route to its second consecutive division championship, and its fourth straight win over its division rival.
Fortunately for the Steelers' defense, the injury wave crushed the offensive side of the ball, but has left them relatively unscathed. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley won't play, giving Jason Worilds his second consecutive start. He leads the team with five sacks, and will need to apply pressure consistently if the Steelers are to remain standing in wake of the haymakers Baltimore will throw.
Winning those edges will again be a major point of emphasis in the Steelers' defensive game plan. Worilds and OLB James Harrison - who has been much closer to his dominant self over the past two games - need to remain disciplined and powerful in their pursuit of Rice against zone, and squeeze Flacco in the pocket, all in an effort to kickstart an offense that will be without several key players.
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh will likely be without QB Ben Roethlisberger and definitely will be without Byron Leftwich, sending Charlie Batch to make his second consecutive start for the first time since the 2010 season.
Batch's second start that year was against Baltimore, and resulted in a 17-14 Ravens win.
Despite disagreement from Steelers players this week, Batch's arm strength is a legitimate concern, as the lack of threat of a deep passing game brought the Browns secondary forward, making passing efficiency difficult. Of Batch's deep throws, none were completed and one was intercepted. He threw three interceptions in the game and along with five lost fumbles (eight total fumbles), the Steelers offense slogged through one of the worst performances it's had in several years.
With another week of full reps, the hope is Batch will be a bit sharper in his decision-making, but clearly, the Steelers will need to again control the time of possession the way they did against the Ravens in the first game, limit turnovers (11 in the last two games)
Left guard Willie Colon was a late-scratch against Cleveland and could miss Sunday's game with a knee injury. If he cannot play (he'll practice Friday), the Steelers will move Maurkice Pouncey from center to guard, and start Doug Legursky at center. Right tackle Mike Adams will also miss this game due to an ankle injury suffered in Week 12, leading to the first career start for Kelvin Beachum - a seventh-round pick in 2012.
On the plus side, the Steelers will get back the team's leading receiver over the first half of the year, Antonio Brown. He's missed the last three games due to a high ankle sprain.
The Steelers coaches will be put to their biggest test of the season - finding a way to stop a high-powered offense while finding points with several key players out and others playing new positions.
Pittsburgh has to establish the run in this game, and play to a low-scoring game. They cannot stand toe-to-toe with the Ravens and engage in a shoot out. Batch cannot be put into a position to lose this game; turnovers will affect the Steelers far more than they will the Ravens, so protecting the ball is paramount if the Steelers are to win this game.
Ravens Special Teams
It's their biggest advantage in this game. Jones is at worst among the league's best kick and punt returners, and Baltimore can easily win the field position battle simply by the Steelers refusing to kick to him.
Steelers Special Teams
K Shaun Suisham has been a big surprise for the Steelers this season, hitting on 20-of-20 from 49 yards and in. Punting, returns and coverage, though, hasn't been great. The Steelers' defense allowed six points against Baltimore (and only three of those came on drives starting outside Pittsburgh's territory), but Jones' punt return touchdown sunk their chances of staying alive in a divisional title race that's all but over - win or lose this game.