I know it's always too early to say a team only one game out of the lead in the division is playing for their season in week 9, but this just might be the case. The Ravens already have two division losses (3 losses overall) and believe it or not they've had the easiest schedule in the league to this point, at least according to Football Outsiders. Their schedule up to this point has consisted of only one winning team (Cleveland) and the combined record is a pathetic 15-36. The record of the teams that they actually beat is even worse at 6-24 (NYJ, ARI, SF, STL). To make things even worse for the Ravens is the schedule from this Monday on is brutal, consisting of only one team with losing record. With nine games remaining in their season they have to play @SD, NE, IND, @SEA, and the Steelers twice and that isn't counting CLE and CIN (both of whom they've already lost to). All of those things being considered I would expect Baltimore to bring their A game and play their best 60 minutes of the season.
I'm not saying that I think Baltimore will win Monday Night, but I am saying I don't think it'll be a game that allows the Steelers to relax at any point. This should be the Steelers toughest game to date and we should all learn quite a bit about this team. Big Ben needs to be sharp, FWP needs to be tough and this defense needs to flex its collective muscle against a pedestrian offense.
Here are my keys to a victory over the Ravens:
3rd down Conversions: The Steelers have been really good converting third downs this year. How good? They're #1 in the NFL at just over 55%, but the problem this week will be that the Baltimore defense is second in the league at stopping opposing offenses from converting at 33%. Talk about strength on strength. On the flip side the Pittsburgh defense has somewhat struggled getting off the field on third down as they rank 25th in the league at 44.4%, but the good news is the Ravens offense ranks 16th in the league at converting on third downs.
Special Teams: The Steelers struggles with covering kicks led to a roster move this week and it might be just in time. The Ravens have returned two punts this year and rank in the top four in both punt and kick return average. Pittsburgh will need Robo Punter to continue to pin the opponent inside the 20 at a league leading 52% clip and the kickoff coverage will need to focus on shutting down the Ravens. They simply do not have an offense that can drive the length of the field and put points on the board.