Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is out for this game, as well as for the next few, as the Ravens embark on a difficult stretch in their schedule. Facing struggling New Orleans and up-and-down San Diego, with their high-powered quarterbacks, shouldn't be easy for the Ravens, particularly if their secondary stays as banged up as it is now.
So why is there a reason for concern?
Year in and year out, the Ravens have one of the best-coached defenses in the NFL. It's not any mark against Smith's level of talent, it's simply pointing out this team has made riches from rags with backups before because they play a disciplined, aggressive scheme that's free of penalties and doesn't allow big plays. They don't miss tackles and they are rarely caught out of position.
That has happened a bit more often recently, particularly due to the declining play of second-year safety Matt Elam, but this is a critical point in the Ravens' season against the opponent they know best.
A key point of combat strategy is recognizing one's weaknesses and finding ways to turn them into strengths. There isn't a whole lot of film out there on what the Ravens do in their secondary, and that can be used as a strength. The Ravens will no doubt continue with a deep-zone look, probably with man-coverage underneath, looking to impose their strength advantage on the Steelers' smaller receivers. They'll dare the Steelers to look deep downfield, banking on their pass rush to land and force poor throws.
All they need to do is hang on (literally and figuratively) for three seconds.
Their ability to execute such a strategy should be a concern for the Steelers. And on offense, nearly the same concept is true. Baltimore's offensive line has an advantage against Pittsburgh's front seven. It's a fluid group that's whole is playing better than the sum of its parts - despite having multiple, high-level individuals. Pittsburgh's surging pass rush from the last two games will meet its biggest challenge yet, and asking that group to remain consistent is asking a lot.
Can the Steelers bring pressure on the deeper drops from quarterback Joe Flacco? They may barely get a chance to try. The Ravens have run mostly the same kind of game plan against the Steelers' defense in the last few meetings, and the results in Ravens' wins have been the same. A protected Flacco isn't bombing deep down the field, he's making short, quick reads and getting the ball out on schedule. Flacco has seen this Steelers team often enough now that not much surprises him anymore. His numbers against them recently have reflected this familiarity.
This is a tough game at a critical point in the season for both teams and it's too close to call. But one thing is for certain. Whichever team's defense can make plays against the opposing passing game will put themselves in position to win.