Baltimore (4-3) @ Pittsburgh (5-2):
The Ravens come off their bye week, after winning two of their previous three, faced with an enormously tough remaining schedule. First in line are the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers, who handled the Cincinnati Bengals on the road in Week 8.
Both teams struggled the previous week. The Ravens suffered a devastating loss to the Buffalo Bills in their most recent game, while the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos on a late field goal.
This weekend's game allows the Ravens an opportunity to take the division lead.
- The Ravens are 6-2 after the bye week under Brian Billick, and have not lost following an off-week since 2001.
- The Steelers have dropped three straight games against the Ravens, including two routs in 2006. They've lost to the Ravens in five out of the last seven matchups.
- On Monday Night Football, the Ravens are 4-4 in their history. They are 0-1 on ESPN's broadcast in 2007.
- The game boasts two of the three best rushers in Willis McGahee and Willie Parker, as well as the two best defenses in the NFL.
- The Ravens have the NFL's third-best record in the months of November and December since 1999.
The biggest factor in the Ravens' struggles thus far has been the abundant injuries they've suffered to the stars of the team.
Pro Bowl LT Jonathan Ogden, who had missed 5 consecutive games, saw limited action against the Bills, as well as in practice. Fellow veteran Mike Flynn Center Mike Flynn left the Buffalo game in the 2nd quarter and did not return. DT Trevor Pryce, another Pro Bowler, has also not played in five games; he is set to play this weekend. Starting QB Steve McNair has missed the past 2, and three overall. CB Chris McAlister and TE Todd Heap, two of the team's most important cogs, did not play versus Buffalo, and both are unsure of their status for Monday night; McAlister is listed as doubtful, while Heap is questionable.
The Steelers This Season:
Under 1st-year head coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers haven't lost a step. They started the season with three consecutive victories before dropping a 21-14 contest at Arizona. The Steelers then came back with a shutout versus the Seahawks before their loss to Denver.
The Steelers’ defense, under long-time coordinator Dick LeBeau, is impressive, ranking first in the league--one place ahead of the 2nd-ranked Ravens.
Three 1st-round Pro Bowlers: NT Casey Hampton, ILB James Farrior. and SS Troy Polamalu, anchor that Steeler defense.
Pittsburgh’s offense is loaded with 1st-rounders (five) and players who have achieved great recognition. LG Alan Faneca and WR Hines Ward have gone to 6 and 4 Pro Bowls, respectively. RB Willie Parker, RS Allen Rossum and LT Marvel Smith are also Pro Bowlers.
Now in his 4th season, QB Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked 14 times in the two games against the Ravens last season, is 2-3 in his five starts vs. Baltimore. Both wins came at Heinz Field.
Ball Control: The Ravens and Steelers are similar in that they focus on their running game and short passing game to control the clock. While Baltimore has been praised for their ability to keep the clock moving, they rank third to the Steelers' first in time of possession per game. With only sixty minutes per matchup, the Ravens must take control of this statistic and keep Roethlisberger and Parker off their home field.
Big Target: TE Todd Heap's presence opens up Steve McNair's passing options extensively. Heap, while hardly a factor thus far, must be in the game to help McNair keep his offense on the field.
Pound: Relating to the necessary ball control, Brian Billick must make sure he serves a heavy dose of RB Willis McGahee. McGahee has topped 20 carries in each of the Ravens' wins, while never topping that workload in a loss. However, McGahee has averaged 5.7 YPC in those losses, and has proven that he deserves the ball in any circumstance.
Run Wild: Roethlisberger has notoriously had extensive troubles when the Ravens' defensive line and linebackers are able to get to him. With the return of Trevor Pryce, those players should benefit greatly, and make Ben's job much more difficult.
Help: There's a very good chance that McAlister won't be able to play again this weekend. Corey Ivy, who has struggled at times but has exponentially more experience than those behind him, will likely fill in. Ivy generally does a satisfactory job as a nickelback, but can be susceptible to the big play when lined up on the sidelines. He will need help, especially from S Ed Reed, to cover Pittsburgh's receivers and make the quarterback hold onto the ball.
Just Stop the Run: In the past, the Steelers have had difficulty running their offense when their opponent stops their running attack. When the game rests solely on Roethlisberger's shoulders, he struggles in pulling the team on his own. Using their strong run defense, Willie Parker should face his toughest task this season, working into the Ravens' hands.
This game means more for the Ravens' season than any they've played this season. For starters, it is a divisional game, where Baltimore is in a dismal 0-2 struggle thus far. As well, the schedule gets no better, as two more divisional games lie ahead, plus consecutive games against San Diego, New England, and Indianapolis.
Winning against Pittsburgh on Monday night pays dividends towards righting the ship that has took a somewhat unexpected turn so far, but losing all but capsizes the team's hopes for a Super Bowl run, let alone a playoff birth, in 2007.
They should be focused on what's at hand. The bye week has done great things for the team in recent years, supplying evidence that they should be prepared for their opponent. However, the lingering injuries still cast doubt as to the Ravens' ability to play at the level they are capable when fully assembled.
This rivalry almost always provides great games, and the nationwide broadcast they'll receive should only provide positive motivation.
He Said It:
Coach Brian Billick on injuries and the bye: “When you consider training camp, four preseason games and seven in the regular season, our bye came at a good time. We’ve been beat up, but there’s a chance that most, if not all of our injured players who have missed games, could be back by the time we get to Pittsburgh. And, what a great opportunity for the midpoint of the season. We’re playing for first place in our division, and it’s on a national stage.”