One week can make a big difference early in an NFL season. Seven days ago, the Steelers and Ravens looked like the class of the AFC North, as usual. Both were 2–0 and hadn’t even trailed in a game up until that point. It was a reasonable assumption that the Steelers would beat the Bears last week, the Ravens would beat the Jaguars, and we’d have a matchup of 3–0 teams with the early division lead on the line.
Yet after stunning Week 3 losses, their Week 4 matchup feels very different. Pittsburgh’s offense, expected to be one of the best in the league, struggled again in an overtime loss. Baltimore’s defense, which looked dominant through two weeks, just gave up 44 points and four touchdown passes to Blake Bortles and the Jaguars. The division lead is still on the line, but this hardly feels like a meeting of powerhouses now.
Instead of coming away talking about how the winner is a real AFC contender, it now seems much more likely that the focus will shift to what is wrong with the loser.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Ravens -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Ravens' running game vs. Steelers' run defense
With Joe Flacco still trying to find his game after a back injury kept him out of most of training camp, the Ravens have leaned on a crowded backfield-by-committee. Baltimore leads the NFL in rushing attempts through three weeks (33 per game), and they rank fourth in rushing yards (142.3 ypg). Over the last couple years, this would not concern the Steelers, who have generally had a strong run defense. But the Bears — not exactly a powerhouse and less of a passing threat than even the Ravens — just gashed Pittsburgh for 222 yards on the ground last week. Baltimore almost needs to hope to do the same, because its passing game scares no one. No wide receiver has more than seven catches, and only aging tight end Ben Watson has more than 100 yards receiving through three games. Total. In a league where there have already been 26 100-yard receiving games by individuals. If the Ravens can’t run it, they likely can’t win.
2. Can Roethlisberger still be Big Ben?
Roethlisberger took the blame for last week’s loss to the Bears, and he admitted he spent part of the offseason contemplating retirement. So it’s not crazy to suggest the end is near for Big Ben. Thing is, he hasn’t been great on the road — especially in Baltimore — for a while. Roethlisberger’s struggles away from Heinz Field are very real: Over the last three full seasons, he has thrown 59 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions at home.... and 22 of each on the road. He is also 2–7 all-time in Baltimore as a starter and hasn’t won there since 2010. He even struggled in the two wins as the Steelers scored just 13 points in each. None of this is to suggest he’s incapable of a big game on Sunday; the Ravens did just get torched by Blake Bortles. But if the Baltimore defense brings it’s A-game that produced 10 takeaways through the first two weeks of the season, it won’t bode well for Roethlisberger.
3. Waiting for Bell to break out
Le’Veon Bell (above, right) held out through the entire preseason, and his game still hasn’t entirely returned. Through three games, he is averaging less than 80 yards per game from scrimmage after averaging nearly 130 per game in for his career coming in. It seems only a matter of time before has a big game; he’s never had one in Baltimore, but he has rushed for more than 120 yards in his last two home games against the Ravens. Baltimore gave up 166 rushing yards to the Jaguars last week, but more than a third of that came on one play, and Jacksonville led big for most of the game. So odds are Bell, who doesn’t have a carry for longer than 15 yards this season, will have to work for whatever he gets.
Should we give the Ravens a mulligan for last week since the game was in London, an experience the Jaguars are used to since they do it every year? If so, shouldn’t we allow for the Steelers to have just let one slip away on the road in overtime? OK, let’s agree those were both random blips on the radar for what are still the two best teams in the AFC North. Looking beyond just last Sunday, the Steelers offense has struggled on the road, and the home team has generally had the upper hand in this rivalry.