Just because Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will not be playing, don't expect the Ravens to take this game any more lightly.
Despite sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011 season and having a two-game winning streak at Heinz Field, the Baltimore Ravens know that the two games each year between these teams will be the most brutal on the schedule. It doesn't matter what the team's records are, who is or is not playing, or where the game is being played. All that matter is the colors of the uniforms on the other side of the ball.
Don't for a second think the Ravens are taking this game any lighter than usual due to the fact that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will be missing the game and will be replaced by seldom used Byron Leftwich. Leftwich is a very capable backup and will be prepared, receiving every rep in practice all week in preparation for this game.
In addition, this is still the Pittsburgh Steelers defense and while it might not include safety Troy Polamalu, it still has the play-makers that have tormented the Ravens offense over the years. Take away the 35-7 beatdown on opening day, 2011, and the Baltimore offense has not exactly exploded in these games. Most likely, this will once again come down to a close game, not decided until late in the fourth quarter, perhaps not until the final possession.
Remember, the Ravens defense has not been the one that has shut down opponents in 2012 and this defense has made average quarterbacks look pretty darn good. The run defense has been almost awful, which seems to be the direction the Steelers are planning to go to protect Leftwich's rustiness. Byron has not started a game since 2009 and has not played in any game since the 2010 season.
However, with a full week's practice and time to throw, he can definitely make the Ravens wounded defense pay the price. If Baltimore does not get pressure on him, Leftwich, now a pocket-passer, will pick them apart. If he does not have the time and is harassed, that feeds right into the success of the Ravens defense, creating turnovers to make the offense's job that much easier.
The return of not only Terrell Suggs, but also Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, would greatly improve the chances of putting pressure on Leftwich. Of course, the best thing the Ravens can do is shut down the running game and force Pittsburgh to go to the air a lot more often than they want, which will be the key to the game.
The same goes for the Ravens, who will want to get their own running game untracked, although the difference is that they are not afraid to go to the air. However, the question arises of whether the Ravens questionable offensive line can protect QB Joe Flacco and not put him in the position of getting rid of the ball too early and leading to Ravens turnovers that give that same benefit to the Steelers.
Once again, this is a classic reason why NFL games are won and lost in the trenches. This game will be another football war for the pure football fans, and surely will not disappoint anyone tuning in. While both Ravens and Steelers fans know this rivalry like the back of their hands, fans of every other NFL team love seeing the cream of the crop battle it out which is why at least one and sometimes both games between these two teams are slated for prime time TV each season.
Expect the Ravens to have more offensive success against Pittsburgh but the Steelers are a better defense than the Ravens unit is. Ultimately, something will have to give and it will be the Ravens coming up with more big plays on both sides of the ball than the Steelers will on their sides. The names on the backs of the jerseys may have changed a bit due to big injuries for both teams, but the loss of Roethlisberger is bigger than anyone the Ravens have lost, including Ray Lewis.
(Post your guess on the game tomorrow in Saturday's 'Predict The Score' Contest)