Even though players can’t officially be ruled out until this Friday it is all but assured that Ben Roethlisberger will not be suiting up for this Sunday night’s divisional rumble in Pittsburgh. In fact his status may be in doubt over the next several weeks if reports of his rib injury are accurate.
Say what you will about Roethlisberger’s past legal difficulties, he’s a tough football player and a difference maker when he’s on the field. Since drafting the Steelers selected him in 2004, Pittsburgh has faced Baltimore 18 times (including playoffs) and in that time the teams have split those games. The telling statistic is that when Roethlisberger doesn’t play the Steelers are 0-4.
Pittsburgh needs him under center in order to be a playoff bound team. He often presents a unique set of problems for a defense to solve. His size and strength make him difficult to tackle. His scrambling ability allows him to extend plays and his receivers know to keep moving which creates havoc in the secondary. His leadership in understanding how to win close games, which is this rivalry’s trademark is always dangerous to contend with when his team has the ball with under two minutes to go.
Instead Dean Pees’ group must battle backup Byron Leftwich, who has started just five games since 2006. Leftwich is a pocket passer with a big arm who won’t take off at the sight of pressure. That could help the Ravens pass rush who had some success against Carson Palmer last week who is a similar style of player. His slow windup may not be the best fit for Todd Haley’s quick release offense, so you might expect the playbook to be scaled down to fit Leftwich’s skill set.
This doesn’t mean that this weekend is a slam dunk for Baltimore. It helps – a lot not have Ben running the show but we need to acknowledge some other points. Sunday night is a must win game for the Steelers. They are one game behind Baltimore in the AFC North and a loss puts them behind two games with six to play. A re-match with the Ravens on the road still looms where they have won 15 straight only two weeks later. If Pittsburgh plans on making it’s move they need this Sunday night’s game. The Ravens are not nearly as desperate as a loss would tie things up and they would still be able to get a game up if they hold serve at home.
Just as Baltimore loves the home cooking, so do the Steelers who also enjoy an undefeated record (4-0) when hosting in 2012. Heinz Field is always a difficult place to play no matter who is on the roster.
Finally, while the Ravens defense has struggled to live up to it’s usual expectations, Pittsburgh is ranked the top defense in the league and that’s without Troy Polamalu. They love to blitz and I can see their speed rushers giving the Ravens Tackles difficulty with pass protection.
So, even without Ben things won’t be easy. However, as I preview this weekend’s game my mind can’t get away from being focused on Leftwich. He hasn’t started an NFL game in almost four years. He didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard subbing last Monday night either going 7 for 14 for 73 yards. Can he lead the Pittsburgh offense in one of their biggest games of the season?
Of course we’ll have to wait and see but if the Ravens can pull out their third straight victory in Pittsburgh it could have huge playoff implications and perhaps allow the purple to host a game at M & T. And as we’ve seen before they are a different team in front of the home crowd.
Lastly, I’ve heard some discussion today on the radio about how Roethlisberger’s injury might affect fans’ interest in the game. Sure, watching your favorite team stomp one of the NFL’s greatest villains is always sweet but if Baltimore can pull out another victory I don’t see how it really matters. It will still be just as sweet to me.