This year’s first round of Steelers-Ravens was everything old-school football fans love, and everything that those who care about this rivalry have come to expect: hard-fought, hard-hitting and low-scoring.
Baltimore’s 13-10 victory, its third straight over Pittsburgh and second in a row at Heinz Field, gives the Ravens a two-game lead in the division and the inside track to a bye in the AFC Playoffs. But there was plenty more to be gleaned from the Sunday Night Football showdown beyond the box score.
1) Ben Roethlisberger is more important than ever to these Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is known not only for extending plays with his legs, but also for taking punishment when his offensive line goes into matador mode. He accomplishes what might be one of the hardest tasks in football—making the Steelers offensive line look good most of the time—remarkably well. But in this case, Big Ben’s history of playing through injuries, like in last year’s big game against San Francisco, was superseded by the potentially dangerous (as in, potentially life-threatening) rib injury he suffered against Kansas City in Week 10.
Roethlisberger’s escapability was sorely missed against Baltimore, as backup Byron Leftwich took lick after lick from the Ravens’ defense and couldn’t escape the game without injury. The Steelers suffered the most on third down—they converted only 5 of 17 attempts Sunday night, a category they had previously led the league in. One of the Steelers’ four three-and-out series turned into a Jacoby Jones punt return TD that proved to be the only time the Ravens crossed the goal line. Pittsburgh will likely be down to third-stringer Charlie Batch in Week 12, and their best hope at the position is that Roethlisberger recovers much quicker than team doctors expect.
2) Home-field advantage would be huge for the Ravens
It’s no secret at this point—the Ravens offense has been pulling a Jekyll and Hyde routine all season. At home, they have no problem putting points on the scoreboard. But the Steelers game marked the third time this year the Ravens have scored 13 points or fewer in a road game, and the second time they didn’t score an offensive touchdown. By contrast, their worst output at home so far is the 23 points they scored against the Browns. That game, by the way, was played on a Thursday night and was their fourth game in 18 days to start the season.
Joe Flacco, who even Ray Rice has called the driving force behind this offense, has home-road splits that are cringe-worthy. At home, he plays like a Pro Bowler. Flacco is averaging over 320 yards per game to go with a QB rating of 108.3 and 10 of his 13 touchdowns. On the road, he turns into Elvis Grbac—a completion percentage of 54.2, a 65.2 QB rating and only three touchdowns against four picks in five games. Those numbers simply won’t get it done if the Ravens have to go on the road against Houston, Denver or New England in January.
3) Both defenses can still play
They’re old, they’re banged up, they’ve lost a step. All these might be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that neither the Ravens nor the Steelers defensive units are going to be laying down for opponents any time soon. Baltimore is giving up only 15 points per game in the three they’ve played since coming off of their bye. They’ve been sending a strong message with some stiff hitting—too strong actually, according to the league. Ed Reed was suspended for repeated illegal hits on Monday (he’s appealing).
The Steelers have clamped down just as much since their hot streak started. They’re giving up just 14.4 points per game during their current 4-1 stretch that started with their Week 7 win over the Bengals. While the Steelers are still below a league-average defense when adjusting for opponent (according to Football Outsiders) and are still not creating turnovers, they’ve smothered opponents yardage-wise. The Chiefs moved the ball for 290 yards against them, but no other team in this five-game run has cracked 255.