The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their heated rivalry with a Saturday night, AFC Wild Card showdown on NBC. This will be the fourth time since 2001 the Ravens (10-6) and Steelers (11-5) have played in a playoff game, with the Steelers winning all three previous matchups.
There’s no love lost between these two teams and the annual meetings are usually close. However, this season’s get-togethers produced two blowouts. Baltimore used three Pittsburgh turnovers en route to an easy 26-6 victory on Sept. 11. The Steelers returned the favor in early November, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards in a decisive 43-23 victory over the Ravens.
Adding to the intrigue of Saturday night’s game is that the Steelers will be missing a big piece of their offense because of injury, while the Ravens will wecome back a key defender. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore’s All-Pro nose tackle, is set to return from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in last week’s win over Cincinnati and has already been ruled out for the wild card game. The team's leading rusher and No. 2 receiver, Bell's absence is something the Steelers must overcome.
Pittsburgh owns a 21-17 overall series edge against Baltimore. The Steelers have won the last two meetings in Heinz Field, but the Ravens claimed back-to-back victories in enemy territory on Nov. 6, 2011 and Nov. 18, 2012.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
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Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Win the Battle in the Trenches
With All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata’s return, the Ravens’ defensive line is at full strength and will create plenty of headaches for Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first two meetings this year, Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger five times and held Steeler rushers to just 154 yards on 43 carries. Considering the problems in pass defense this season, the Ravens need to disrupt Pittsburgh’s offense by generating pressure on Roethlisberger. And when Roethlisberger breaks free of the initial rush, it’s critical the Ravens stick with their coverage to limit big plays by Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Even with Le'Veon Bell already ruled out because of a knee injury, Baltimore should look to put Roethlisberger in long-yardage situations and use its physical, aggressive front seven to generate pressure. When the Ravens have the ball on offense, getting running back Justin Forsett on track will be a priority. In the first meeting between these two teams, Forsett gashed the Steelers for 96 yards on 22 attempts. In the rematch, Forsett was limited to 38 yards on nine carries. Balance on offense is crucial to set up Baltimore’s play-action game from quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable to play, which means rookie James Hurst will be under pressure to protect Flacco against Pittsburgh’s front seven. If Flacco has protection, there will be opportunities for big plays against a secondary that ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass. Even if cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu return from injury, the Steelers could struggle to contain the Baltimore pass offense.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=09 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Attack the Ravens’ Secondary
Even if Le'Veon Bell ended up playing, running the ball against Baltimore still figured to a be a tough task for the Steelers. After all, Pittsburgh managed only 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts in the first matchup, and the Ravens limited the Steelers to 55 yards on 25 carries in the second meeting. Combine Bell’s absence with Haloti Ngata’s return, and it’s easy to see why this game will rest on the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh added some backfield insurance with the addition of veteran Ben Tate, but it’s difficult to envision Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Tate having much success against a Ravens defense that limited opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry and 88.3 yards per game. Roethlisberger battled an illness in last week’s win over Cincinnati but should be at full strength for this one. In the early November meeting against the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass, but held its last four opponents under 200 yards through the air. Of course, the Ravens didn’t exactly run the gauntlet of quarterbacks in playing Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville and Miami. With the uncertainty surrounding the ground attack and the strength of Baltimore’s front seven, Roethlisberger will have to be perfect for Pittsburgh to win. The veteran is having an outstanding season (32 TDs, 9 INTs) and is surrounded by a deep group of receivers. Antonio Brown led the NFL with 1,698 receiving yards this season, while tight end Heath Miller (66 receptions) and Markus Wheaton (53 catches) were steady options. Rookie Martavis Bryant is an emerging star, averaging 21.1 yards per reception in 2014. The Steelers are known for winning with their defense and rushing attack, but on Saturday night, their best chance of advancing in the playoffs likely rests with an offense taking to the air and Roethlisberger attempting 40-50 passes.
Five out of the last seven matchups between these two teams were decided by three points or less. While both Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh games in the regular season were one-sided affairs, the wild card battle on Saturday night should be close. No Le'Veon Bell for the AFC North champions puts even more pressure on Josh Harris, Ben Tate and Dri Archer to produce out of the backfield. However, the Steelers still have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. Although defenses usually control this rivalry, don’t be surprised if Saturday night’s affair features more scoring. If Pittsburgh had Bell in on the field, the Steelers would be at least a touchdown favorite. Without him, the game moves closer to a toss-up. Roethlisberger does just enough, and Pittsburgh’s defense picks up a late turnover to seal the victory and send the Steelers to Denver for next weekend’s AFC Divisional Round.