The game of football and especially at the professional level is about match-ups and being able to take advantage of them. Both the Steelers and Ravens have been scheming all week on how to take advantage of each other’s weaknesses.
Rarely does a game seem so simple in terms of those match-ups than this one and I’ve got it boiled down to the three keys that apply to both teams for their Sunday Night match-up.
1. Winning on third down… The Steelers behind Ben Roethlisberger have absolutely dominated their opponents on third down and now with Byron Leftwich at the helm that task becomes huge. The Steelers lead the NFL in third down conversions at a shade under 50% but that number has been only 40% the last three weeks.
The Ravens are 18th in the league in converting third downs at around 35%. One of the struggles for Dick LeBeau’s defenses in the last several years has been getting off the field on third downs. They are currently in the middle of the pack at 16th so their ability to keep Joe Flacco from converting is crucial. The Ravens are 23rd at stopping offenses on third down so they must be thrilled to see Roethlisberger on the sidelines. The winner in this area will have a leg up towards victory.
2. In-Game Management… To say that Mike Tomlin struggles with in-game management is like saying Joan Rivers struggles with plastic surgery. Last week against the Chiefs he went for a fourth down at mid-field with a tenuous three-point lead and did not get it. His defense bailed him out as they did against the Giants following his fake field goal call down three in New York.
I like aggressive play-calling but I also like ‘smart’ play-calling too. There is a time and a place for a trick play or an attempt at a fourth down conversion and while it is never an easy decision, both coaches can be second-guessed at will in a game that will more than likely be a close one.
3. Pass Rush… I think both teams are going to give up yards on the ground. Even though the Steelers rank 6th against the run, they are vulnerable as we’ve seen a few times this season. Baltimore is horrendous against the run having given up over 200 plus yards to the Chiefs and the Cowboys. So why does the pass rush matter then?
It matters because neither team is what they once were when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback. Steeler Nation might not like to hear this but I’ll take Joe Flacco over Byron Leftwich if we are talking about who’ll take advantage of time in the pocket. Therefore, it will be vital for both teams to crank up ways to get pressure in this game. Even with Terrell Suggs back, this is not a dominant or even consistent Ravens’ pass rush and the same could be said for the Steelers.
LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison must get pressure Sunday night and the earlier the better. No Troy Polamalu means a weaker secondary which emphasizes the pass rush even more. As ‘sack-happy’ as we all are these days, the key issue is pressure. Which defense can make the other QB uncomfortable more often is paramount in the NFL’s top rivalry.
Prediction: No one will be pulling harder for the Steelers and especially Byron Leftwich this weekend. What this boils down to for me is players. The Steelers are without arguably their two best offensive players in Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while the Ravens have Ray Rice and Flacco. I’m also concerned about the crowded Steelers’ backfield and will Tomlin allow the hot-hand to play? As much as it pains me I can see Baltimore 22 Pittsburgh 17.