Undefeated Steelers host shorthanded Ravens in rescheduled AFC North showdown
What was supposed to be a Thanksgiving night showdown between Baltimore and Pittsburgh is set to finally take place on Wednesday, following multiple postponements due to the Ravens' ongoing COVID-19 issues. A game that was originally scheduled for last Thursday, was first moved to Sunday afternoon, then Tuesday night, and finally Wednesday afternoon because Baltimore was dealing with the biggest outbreak the NFL has seen yet.
At one point, 22 players alone were on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the Ravens while several other coaches and team personnel either tested positive or were deemed high-risk close contacts. The team's facility also was closed for several days so if this game does happen, Baltimore will be both shorthanded and have had practically no practice time. The Steelers aren't immune to the surge in coronavirus cases among teams either. Three players are currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list and will miss this game and the coaching staff has been impacted as well.
What hasn't changed, however, is the importance of this game, especially for the Ravens. With two straight losses, Baltimore is 6-4 and currently in third place in the AFC North behind Cleveland (8-3) and undefeated Pittsburgh (10-0). A loss for the Ravens would eliminate any hope of winning the division, but more importantly, it would drop them a game behind Indianapolis, who is currently holding the final wild-card spot. Don’t forget that just a year ago, Baltimore was the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
This rivalry has been fierce and it's been close with the majority of the games coming down to the wire and decided by one score. That was the case in their first meeting earlier this season when Pittsburgh won 28-24 in Baltimore in Week 8. Ironically, this game also had to be moved from Week 7 because of the Tennessee Titans' COVID-19 issues at the time. The Steelers got the victory despite the Ravens doubling them up in yards (457-221) as four turnovers by Lamar Jackson (2 INTs, 2 fumbles) proved costly.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 3:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -10.0
Three Things to Watch
1. What will the Ravens look like?
As of Wednesday morning, 15 players are currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list for Baltimore. The offensive players alone include quarterback Lamar Jackson, running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins, tight end Mark Andrews, and wide receiver Willie Snead IV. There also are two starters from the defense — lineman Calais Campbell and linebacker Matthew Judon. Tackle Brandon Williams was removed from the list on Tuesday but he has been ruled out because of an ankle injury.
Simply put, the Ravens will not be anywhere close to full strength on Wednesday, even though it's nearly a week after the game's originally scheduled date of Nov. 26. Earlier in the week, there were reports that Ingram and Dobbins would be cleared in time to play, but neither traveled with the team to Pittsburgh as Tuesday was their last day of quarantine and according to ESPN.com, neither are expected to be added to the active roster for Wednesday's game. Either's return would have given the offense a big boost. Dobbins ran for 113 yards on 15 carries in the first meeting with the Steelers. The running game will probably have to carry even more of the load than usual with Jackson, Andrews, and Snead all ineligible to play.
Robert Griffin III will get the start in Jackson's absence. He's seen very few snaps this season, completing one of two passes for nine yards with an interception to go along with one rushing yard on five carries in three appearances. Between the missing personnel and practice time, chances are Baltimore's game plan will be simplified and very run-heavy with Griffin at the helm.
The good news is that the Ravens were very successful running the ball against the Steelers the first time out. They gashed Pittsburgh for 265 yards on 47 carries with Gus Edwards (87 yards, TD) and Jackson (65) joining Dobbins on the damage. Ingram missed that game because of an ankle injury.
The bad news is that Jackson definitely won't play and Dobbins isn't expected to. And even with that poor showing, Pittsburgh is eighth in the league against the run, giving up an average of 103.4 yards per game. Take out Baltimore's big game and that drops to 85.4. Also, Griffin is nowhere near as dynamic or explosive as Jackson and the Steelers can simplify their defensive game plan knowing they don't have to account for the reigning NFL MVP or Dobbins and Ingram in the backfield, as well as Andrews or Snead in the passing game.
2. Baltimore's D? What about Pittsburgh?
And speaking of defense, while the Ravens D has been a hallmark throughout head coach John Harbaugh's tenure, it's the Steelers who actually rank ahead of Baltimore in almost every category.
Defensively, the Steelers rank fourth in yards allowed (306.9) and second in yards per play (4.94). Compare that to a Ravens slide to eighth and 10th in both categories, respectively. Where Pittsburgh stands out the most, though is their ability to produce turnovers that lead to points. Their 21 takeaways lead the NFL as does a plus-12 turnover margin. The Titans (+11) are the only other team in double digits.
The Steelers' capitalized on four Jackson turnovers in the first meeting, including an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Robert Spillane, who has taken over for an injured Devin Bush (torn ACL). They also sacked Jackson four times and boast three of the top seven players in the AFC in sacks this season — T.J. Watt (9.0), Bud Dupree (8.0), and Stephon Tuitt (7.0). Tuitt will miss this game because he's on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but Baltimore's offense is even more shorthanded so Pittsburgh should still be able to put plenty of pressure on Griffin when he drops back to throw.
The Ravens' defense can still make big plays, too; their fumble return against the Colts three weeks ago set the stage for a rare win during this stretch. But the unit will be missing three starters and a couple of key reserves (lineman Justin Madubuike and linebacker Pernell McPhee) and a lack of overall depth and practice time will make it hard to match the Steelers' intensity reminiscent of the 1970s Steel Curtain.
3. Can Big Ben's big moments continue?
Ben Roethlisberger has been enjoying one of his best seasons under center at 38. He's on pace for 38 touchdowns, setting a new career-high while throwing just five interceptions in 10 games. More importantly, the offensive line has been giving Big Ben time to throw. He's taken just two sacks in the last five games, both against the Ravens, which culminate in a career-low sack rate (2.6 percent).
Roethlisberger has been helped by the emergence of multiple receivers as weapons. A pair of top draft picks in the last two years, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, have come out swinging with a combined 1,096 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches. Lately, it's Johnson who has the hot hand, coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances.
Homegrown talent has opened the door and made it easier for veteran receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner to do their jobs. It's created such a long list of offensive weapons all Roethlisberger has to do is sit back and wait for someone to get open, and will make it easier for the Steelers to survive without Conner, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Pittsburgh also will be without center Maurkice Pouncey, who the team put on the list Wednesday morning. His absence will not be easy to overcome as the Steelers already have depth issues up front.
But the real question is can a depleted Ravens defense find a way to put a lid on all of Pittsburgh's weapons. Last time, they were moderately effective, holding Smith-Schuster, Johnson, and Claypool to 115 receiving yards combined. But then tight end Eric Ebron burned them for 48 yards and a touchdown. You just can't win.
Baltimore needs this game to have a sliver of a chance at the AFC North (an easy remaining schedule still should slot them in as a wild-card team). The problem is they will be severely shorthanded and ill-prepared to face a Steelers team that is undefeated and would want nothing more than to sweep their archrivals.
Even with a depleted roster and minimal practice time, the Ravens will put up a spirited fight. But the Steelers D will overwhelm a Lamar Jackson-less offense and Ben Roethlisberger and his weapons will do the rest. There's a reason the spread on this game has gone from a little more than a field goal prior to the original postponement to double digits.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Ravens 16
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.