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Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction and Preview

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It seems as if every game the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens play this season is "must win." Granted, nobody is getting mathematically eliminated from a playoff berth after this game, but the Ravens simply cannot begin 0-4 and think playoffs.

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Meanwhile, the worst thing that could happen to the Steelers after this week is they would fall two games behind in the AFC North race with two games left against first-place Cincinnati to make up the gap.

But if the Steelers don't beat the Ravens, it will likely cast doubt on quarterback Michael Vick's ability to lead a team. After Ben Roethlisberger went down with a left knee sprain against St. Louis, Vick led five drives, not including the final kneel down. In these drives the Steelers gained just two first downs, and one came on a 23-yard run by Le'Veon Bell on first and 10.   

The Ravens vs. Steelers has been called the NFL's most physical rivalry. With the injuries both teams have suffered one gets the feeling both teams will reinforce their running game, making this contest even more hard-hitting.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)

TV: CBS, NFL Network

Spread: Baltimore -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Vick

The talk is the Steelers will utilize a moving pocket. Though Vick showed little ability to scramble against St. Louis, he averaged 5.9 yards a rush last season with the Jets. The drawback is receivers often aren't quite sure where the ball is coming from when a quarterback is on the run, and rolling out limits a quarterback to just half the field.

That's important because Vick's yards per pass average (5.0) was actually lower than his yards per carry average last season. His six passes Sunday against St. Louis netted only 38 yards.

A quarterback cannot scramble to a championship. It simply becomes a question if Vick can throw the ball downfield during Roethlisberger's four-to-six-week absence.

Cincinnati's A.J. Green caught 10 passes for 227 yards against the Ravens last week in a 28-24 victory. If Vick can get the ball to Antonio Brown, the Steelers likely win. If he can't, the Steelers likely won't.

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2. How will the secondaries do?

The Ravens' pass defense has been porous to date this year, ranking 29th in the league. Both Derek Carr and Andy Dalton have picked the Baltimore defense apart, each throwing for more than 350 yards against the Ravens.

The secret weapon for Baltimore in this game might be their quarterbacks coach, Marty Mornhinweg. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has asked Mornhinweg, Vick's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia and New York, to reveal some pointers on his tendencies.

Meanwhile, the Steelers' pass defense was a cause of concern at the beginning of the season. It's since shored up after not allowing a touchdown to the Rams and sacking Colin Kaepernick five times in Week 2.

But the Steelers have allowed 72 percent of passes thrown against them to be completed and Joe Flacco has only been sacked twice this season. He may have enough time to pick the Steelers apart.

3. Who is going to play, anyway?

The problem with Flacco's ability to pick the Steelers apart is that he may be without two of his primary targets and his left tackle. Breshad Perriman was listed as out with a knee injury in Monday's injury report and breakout tight end Crockett Gilmore, who has averaged more than 15 yards on 10 receptions this season, didn't practice after suffering a calf injury. Left tackle Eugene Monroe didn't play last Sunday after suffering a concussion, but Flacco was not sacked without Monroe protecting his blind side.

This means Steve Smith could be the only starting receiver Flacco will have to throw to. Smith was brilliant against Cincinnati, catching 13 passes for 186 yards, but Perriman's replacement, Kamar Aiken, was held without a catch.

On the Steelers' side, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier will miss his second straight game with a shoulder injury after registering a 15-tackle performance against San Francisco in Week Two. But after holding St. Louis to just 267 yards and six points how much did the Steelers really miss Shazier with former starter Sean Spence in his place?

Other Steelers who might miss the game are linebacker James Harrison and cornerback Cortez Allen. Though Harrison is a star, his role has been more of a part-time player this season, and most Steelers fans would prefer that Allen stayed on the sidelines.

Final Analysis

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Look for Pittsburgh to continue to go for 2-point conversions after touchdowns with the mobile Vick under center. This strategy hasn't really affected the Steelers yet, but their failure to collect said conversion after scoring a touchdown against the Rams could very easily have meant defeat if St. Louis could have produced a touchdown on its final drive. Instead the Steelers were able to hold on for a 12-6 victory.

Modern offenses in the NFL don't remind anyone of Georgia Tech, but with the injuries both teams have suffered doesn't it seem likely a few more running plays than normal will be called in this game? If it comes down to Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams against Justin Forsett the Steelers win. You'd never think the Steelers would be in better shape injury-wise if Roethlisberger can't play, but it's likely the truth.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 21

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)