Each week, Gregg Rosenthal watches a lot of Game Rewind. He uses that every Friday to preview a big upcoming matchup.
Byron Leftwich will start at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in a huge division matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. That has a lot of people assuming the Ravens will win easily. We beg to differ, especially after watching the Ravens on All-22 Game Rewind action over the last two weeks.
The latest meeting of the greatest current rivalry in football will be defined largely by who isn't available: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown, and safety Troy Polamalu for the Steelers. Linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerbacks LarDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith for the Ravens.
Ravens fans should be more worried about the trio of defensive stars that will suit up. Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata has been a shell of his former self in recent games because of a shoulder injury. He spent half of the team's win over the Cleveland Browns on the ground, dominated by Browns center Alex Mack. Ravens coach John Harbaugh wisely kept Ngata on the sidelines the following week in an effort to get him right. Ngata is the biggest difference-maker on the Ravens defense. They need him to be disruptive.
Terrell Suggs is also searching for his usual explosion. The linebacker had a nice first game back against the Houston Texans, but he's been very quiet in two weeks since the team's bye. Tough matchups (left tackles Joe Thomas, Jared Valdheer) haven't helped, but Suggs has produced next to no pass rush. He can still set the edge and he puts himself in position to make plays because his smarts and instincts remain intact. He's helping the team, but physically he's just not close to all the way back from his Achilles tear.
Safety Ed Reed may be the team's biggest concern. Like Suggs, his mind and instincts are willing. Reed's body isn't cooperating. Reed wasn't "benched" last week for poor play. He was benched because his shoulder injury makes it impossible for him to make tackles. Reed is slow to get up after every play. On more than one play against the Raiders, he literally had to avoid making the tackle if help was around him.
The Ravens said Reed suffered a stinger on a Darrius Heyward-Bey touchdown by the Raiders last week. That may be true, but Reed looked like he was hurting badly before that play ever happened. Reed's presence is especially necessary because of the players missing around him.
Leftwich should throw plenty
The Ravens have been trampled on the ground throughout the season, but they've slowed down the onslaught in recent weeks. Second round pick Courtney Upshaw has quietly become a huge run-stuffer. He may not rush the passer well yet, but he's making a big impact on the ground. Suggs' presence also helps.
The real weakness of the Ravens defense is their pass rush and secondary. With Webb and Smith out, the team is going to rely on deep reserves Chyke Brown and Corey Graham to cover the Steelers. Safety Bernard Pollard is not good in coverage. There is no logical matchup for Steelers tight end Heath Miller.
Compounding the problem: The Ravens struggle to get to the quarterback. The Ravens are tied for 22nd in the NFL with 16 sacks. ProFootballFocus.com ranks them as the 28th best pass rush overall. (The good news: the Steelers are 30th.)
It sounds strange, but the Steelers' biggest advantage offensively may come in the passing game. They should give Leftwich a chance to get the ball to receivers Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Miller.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has quietly played error-free football since his meltdown against the Texans. His protection has been excellent. He can deliver under fire and throws as pretty a deep ball as any quarterback. Flacco also has shown development in the mental part of his game. He looks off safeties well. A great segment of Sound FX showed how Flacco made the Raiders think he was checking to a run play as a setup to a long touchdown strike to Torrey Smith.
The Ravens offense is tough to predict. Some weeks they go heavy with the no huddle. Against the Browns, they pounded the ball with running back Ray Rice and only had five no-huddle snaps. Fullback Vonta Leach's snap counts have risen dramatically in recent weeks, which signals a return to a balanced offense.@greggrosenthal.