The Pittsburgh Steelers look to stack their fifth win in a row Sunday night when they host division rival Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Ravens beat writer John Eisenberg from BaltimoreRavens.com.
Dime For Diesel & Zebras - The Ravens have two solid tight ends in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who have combined to catch 49 balls so far this season. Add in wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones and you have a very capable receiving group for quarterback Joe Flacco to throw to. The Ravens have used their Diesel package (2 tight ends/2 wide receivers) 97 times this season and have had 2 tight ends on the field for 138 plays in total. They would love nothing more than to get linebacker Larry Foote singled up on one of the tight ends or Ray Rice out of the backfield on obvious passing downs, so look for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to break back out the dime package again this week with cornerback Curtis Brown subbing in for Foote in these situations. When the Ravens use their zebra personnel grouping, or 11 as it is now called, which features 3 wide receivers, the same goes, as Rice and whichever tight end is on the field still can pose matchup problems to the Steelers if they only roll out their nickel sub package.
Don\'t Get Zoned Out - I have posted quite a bit in the past about the Steelers problems of defending the zone blocking scheme. They have already struggled against it this season in their games against the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and the Kansas City Chiefs and the Ravens run it as good as any team the league with fullback Vonta Leach leading the way for Rice in their outside lead version of it. Anyone remember the Week 1 game last season against the Ravens? Stretching the run out while staying gap sound and square to the line of scrimmage is the key for the Steelers front 7 and it won\'t be easy to do. The Ravens offensive line loves to cut block while running this so nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood must stay on their feet in order for the linebackers to make the play. If they don\'t, Rice will break off runs in chunks.
Run For Your Life - In order for the Steelers to win this game with Byron Leftwich under center in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger they must have success running the football against a Ravens defense that has been susceptible to it this season. The Steelers offensive line has gelled quite a bit over the last few weeks and the return of running back Rashard Mendenhall should help things out even more. Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is not 100% right now and the their linebackers have been less than average at times at defending against the power. Should the Ravens defense be able to shut down the Steelers running game with only a 7 man front, the way the Chiefs were able to do last week, it will make for a long day for the offense. Forcing safety Bernard Pollard to play the run on early downs will set up Leftwich to take shots down the field against a second team Ravens cornerback unit and a one armed Ed Reed. If Leftwich has to throw more than 25 passes in this game, the odds of the Steelers winning it reduce greatly. More than 30 times and all bets are off.
You\'ve Got To Keep Them Separated - Leftwich is not a quarterback that can consistently throw the football through a small window so Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, and Heath Miller must get separation from their defenders to open up the catch radius. Look for offensive coordinator Todd Haley to use a bevy of rubs, slants, and smash routes in order to get his eligibles an extra step on their defender, preferably between the has marks where Leftwich is at his best at delivering accurate throws. The Ravens defenders will try their best to clog up the middle areas of the field as they would much rather Leftwich try to throw outside the numbers instead. Cary Williams, Corey Graham, and Chykie Brown are not household cornerback names so the Steelers receiving unit, that will be minus the injured Antonio Brown, must win the separation battles or else.
50 Yard Heinz Field - Leftwich is not a quarterback that should be expected to drive the Steelers offense 70 or 80 yards for scores in this game. The Steelers will be lucky if it happens once. That means that the offense must be provided short fields by whatever means possible, and by short I mean on the Ravens side of the field as often as possible via long returns or turnovers. Is that a lot to ask? Absolutely, but it is the only way that I see the Steelers winning this game. The less that Leftwich has to do in this game, the better, so the Steelers defense and special team units have to make this happen. It certainly would be nice to steal 7 points in this game via a defensive touchdown or a return, something we haven\'t seen this season. On the flip side, giving Flacco a short field will certainly result in points allowed.
Extra Protection - The rumors are true. Leftwich does have a big wind up and is not very mobile. You should know that by now as that is all the media has been talking about. What they haven\'t been talking about is the arm strength of Leftwich, who if given enough time, can deliver fastballs across the middle and deep balls to Wallace specifically. The Steelers backup is a true pocket passer that plays best when he doesn\'t haven\'t a pass rush in his face. The Ravens will know this and will attempt to send double A-gap pressure quite a bit if they are not getting home with just a regular four man rush. The edge is always a concern when Terrell Suggs is on the field so both Max Starks and Mike Adams must be up to the test in order to keep him silent. Against the blitz, the Steelers running backs must be solid in identifying and picking up the free runners in order to allow Leftwich to get the ball out cleanly. The interior of the Steelers line has to give the extra half second of protection to allow for the longer delivery time.
Toxic Heavy & Penalty Free - I have already discussed the turnovers a bit, but explosive plays are also the golden calf in this game. The Steelers must get yardage in chunks when they throw and the Ravens defense has been victimized at times this year through the air. Twice what the Steelers have been. The Steelers lead the league in the TOX differential stat so far this season and have done so without getting many turnovers. They must win the plus 2 war in this game and even that might not be enough. Every penalty in this game that the Steelers incur is another toe shot off so they have to be uber disciplined this week and more so than any other game that they have played this season.
Prediction - In order for the Steelers to win this game the defense must keep the Ravens under the 23 point mark. Even if Roethlisberger and Brown were playing in this game the same would hold true. If the Steelers offense is not able to run the ball and keep it away from the Ravens offense this one could wind up looking like the opening game last season. Leftwich is a servicable quarterback, but must be complimented by good pressure and a solid running game. Asking him to throw for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns is unfair. Turnovers are a must. If the Steelers fail to get any, I can\'t see them winning this game. With all of the above said, I think that head coach Mike Tomlin will have this team feeling disrespected and carrying a chip on their shoulder. Someone on defense and special teams will make a play this week and the running game should be their. The Steelers need to at least get a split in the two games this year and at home is their best chance to do it. This one could come down to a last minute kick by Shaun Suisham to win it.
Final Score - Steelers 23 Ravens 21