The Pittsburgh Steelers look to prevent a three game losing streak Sunday against the 9-2 Baltimore Ravens and it will not be an easy task on the road. The Ravens can clinch the AFC North with a win and a loss by the Cincinnati Bengals and nothing would be more satisfying then to stop the bleeding by beating them and bring them back a little closer to the pack in the process. 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 the BaltimoreRavens.com.
All The Right Moves - As it stands right now, rookie seventh-round draft pick Kelvin Beachum will make his first career start at right tackle with Mike Adams being out injured. In the last meeting between these two teams Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger had his way with Adams to the tune of two sacks, three quarterback hits, and a few pressures. Last week upon entering the game against the Cleveland Browns Beachum was flagged for holding, but he seemed to calm down a bit after that. Beachum is not afraid to use his hands, but he has developed a reputation as a holder after incurring multiple holding penalties during the preseason on the left side of the line. Should Beachum struggle early, head coach Mike Tomlin will not hesitate to kick right guard Ramon Foster outside to tackle and put in rookie David DeCastro at right guard. The Steelers need to be able to run to the ball Sunday in order to win so the right side must be able to pull there weight.
Don\'t Be Sorry Charlie - You can\'t blame quarterback Charlie Batch entirely for the loss last week in Cleveland, but he sure did have a hand in it with his three interceptions, the last of which was truly a poor decision on the deep pass to Mike Wallace. Batch also missed a wide open Wallace deep in the game for a sure touchdown and you only get so many of those opportunities during a game. Batch will not be able to win this game on his own, but he certainly can lose it with poor decisions and weak armed throws. Another week of practice to work on his timing should help, but how much? With a fuller compliment of wide receivers this week, the Steelers should be able to spread things out a bit more with their 11 personnel and run/pass balance out of it. That being said, asking Batch to throw more than 29 times in this game is asking for trouble. The more conservative that offensive coordinator Todd Haley can be with Batch, the better.
Hang Them Out To Dwyer - Tomlin has settled on Jonathan Dwyer as his starting running back and with good reason as he has indeed been the most productive and most physical of the bunch. In his other two starts he rushed for more than 100 yards and this is exactly what the Steelers offense needs to happen on Sunday in Baltimore in order to win. While Dwyer will be spelled occasionally, he should be allowed to find his rhythm without a fear of being yanked. Ball security is of course obvious this week and that was surely heavily emphasized during the week of practice. Ideally Dwyer will finish with around 23 or more carries to the tune of 130 plus yards rushing. Ball control is a must on long fields and if the Steelers can\'t run this week, a win is very, very improbable.
Keeping Up With The Joneses - There are two people with the last name Jones that will severely impact this game. Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones and Steelers special teams coach Amos Jones. Jacoby single-handedly won the game two weeks ago with his 63 yard punt return for a touchdown. Nothing remotely similar to that can happen again in Baltimore if the Steelers expect to win this game. The Ravens specialist is dangerous as a kick returner as well, so Amos better have these units ready to play. The Steelers own return units have been dismal this year outside of a few nice returns. Their play, for all intensive purposes, has been anything but consistent. Amos has to be on the hot seat right now and that seat could be cooled off a little in Baltimore with a special teams touchdown, turnover, or multiple short fields for the offense to work with. The Ravens owned the field position battle two weeks ago, and should they own it again on Sunday, it will be an easy win for them. We have been calling for it for weeks now and it is imperative that the third phase of the team carry their weight.
Troy Story - It is hard to think back and find a win over the Ravens that did not include a big play or three being made by safety Troy Polamalu. The Steelers will finally get their prized possession back on Sunday after being out since the win over the Philadelphia Eagles with a torn calf. While Will Allen has finally settled in nicely over the last several weeks, he has merely been a finger in the dyke and certainly not a game changer like Polamalu is. While there is a chance that Polamalu could see his snaps limited in Baltimore, he should see the field more than enough to make a difference. The Steelers defense needs a few turnovers in this game to give the offense a legitimate chance to score, and who better than Polamalu to provide them via an interception or a sack fumble?
Ravens Up Tight - The Ravens most likely will be without tight end Ed Dickson in this game as he is doubtful with a knee injury. This leaves Dennis Pitta as their only other tight end threat as a result. The Steelers will likely follow the same plan as two weeks ago and let Ike Taylor handle Torrey Smith, while Keenan Lewis looks to handle Anquan Boldin much in the same way he did in the last meeting. Quarterback Joe Flacco will likely try use Pitta more in this game in the middle the field so the Steelers have to keep close tabs on him with either a safety or a middle linebacker depending on personnel and down an distance. Pitta has 4 of the Ravens 14 receiving touchdowns as he is deadly in the red zone. He is their version of Heath Miller and has to be accounted for specifically in key situations.
Rice Cold - We all saw what happened last week on 4th and the ballgame against the San Diego Chargers. Were any of you surprised by that? Just because the Steelers held running back Ray Rice to 40 yards rushing two weeks ago is no guarantee that they will be able to do it again. As quiet as he seemed to be in that last meeting, he still managed to compile 93 yards off offense with 31 of them coming on a busted coverage after Flacco avoided pressure. Offensive yards will be at a premium in this game, and while asking the defense to hold him under 100 total yards is a tall task, it is a task that must be accomplished. Should Rice run for 100 in this game, the Steelers will lose, because he will assuredly have another 30 or more receiving to go with it.
Prediction - So many things have to go right in this game in order for the Steelers to win it. They need to play nearly perfect in all three phases and limit what Batch has to do on offense. I truly believe that the defense will have to force at least two turnovers in this game for starters and that the running game must produce a minimum of 130 yards rushing. I also believe that the magic number of attempts for Batch is 28 or less based on his history as a starter since coming to Pittsburgh. Batch has failed to beat the Ravens in his two other starts and I would be lying to you if I told you that I honestly believed that the third time will be a charm in the Charmed City. Hopefully my prediction is way off as a Steelers win would be extremely huge, if not monumental. Can they win this game? sure they can, but I just think that this mountain is too tough to climb. Just trying to keep it real and objective here per my usual.
Final Score - Ravens 23 Steelers 16