Ravens shouldn't expect an easy road with Roethlisberger out

Ben Roethlisberger

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass in last year's game against the Ravens at Heinz Field. (Jared Wickerham, Getty Images / November 7, 2011)

It's certainly tempting to look at what happened to Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night and assume that the balance of power in the AFC North has shifted dramatically in the favor of the Ravens, because that would seem to be a pretty fair assumption.

The loss of Big Ben to a rare rib cage injury might even be a watershed moment in the history of the Ravens/Steelers rivalry, depending on just how serious that injury turns out to be.

But, if you think that means the Ravens will waltz into Heinz Field on Sunday night and walk over the Steelers in the first of two head-to-head meetings over a span of just 15 days, you might want to take a quick history lesson.

Roethlisberger has missed four games against the Ravens for various reasons during the course of his great career and the Ravens have taken advantage of his absence to win all four of those games, but every one of them was a typical, hard-fought rivalry showdown that was decided by no more than six points and could have gone either way right up to the end.

There's really no reason to think that Sunday night will be any different, though no one would be foolish enough to discount the impact of the latest in a string of injuries to some of the NFL's top quarterbacks.

The oddsmakers certainly haven't. The Steelers were favored by 3 1/2 points when the Week 11 betting lines opened. Now, the Ravens are favored by a field goal, which means that the people who make their living figuring out what the score might be believe that Pittsburgh would be about a touchdown better if Roethlisberger were healthy.

That's a big, big difference in this new era of NFL parity — and it's something the Ravens need to exploit if they are to position themselves for another deep playoff run — but they know that it would be foolhardy to underestimate highly-experienced backup quarterback Byron Leftwich.

"We can't take him for granted," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "This guy is very capable of going out there and shredding us."

Even without Roethlisberger, the Steelers remain a highly talented offensive team and their defense ranks No. 1 in the league in total yards allowed. The Ravens defense, meanwhile, is still adjusting to the loss of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb and could be vulnerable in the secondary if Leftwich gets enough time to spread the ball around to Mike Wallace, tight end Heath Miller and the rest of a deep receiving corps.

"I'm sure they have a whole offense up for him," coach John Harbaugh said. "…You defend the offense. They've got weapons all over the field. They are arguably one of the most talented, if not the most talented, offenses in football. All those guys are going to be out there playing, and Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch is fully capable of running that offense very well."

Still, it's hard not to look at the dramatic change in the competitive dynamic of each of these teams over the past few weeks and think that the Ravens have a big opportunity to solidify their position atop the AFC North during a stretch that — until very recently — seemed like it might be a major road block on the way to the playoffs.

Two weeks ago at this time, the Ravens were smarting from a one-sided loss to the Houston Texans and the Steelers were surging back into contention after a slow start. The Steelers survived Monday night's overtime scare from the Chiefs to win their fourth game in a row and remain one game behind the Ravens in the division standings, but the immediate implications of the loss of Roethlisberger and the uncertainty about his future clearly have cast a big shadow over the rest of their season.

The Ravens, perhaps because there is no such thing as an easy game against the Steelers, are looking at Sunday's game the same way they would have if Big Ben was heading into it at the top of his game.

"We're going to prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers,'' linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I don't think the gameplan is pretty much going to change depending on who's under center. They're going to be who they are. They are going to do what Pittsburgh does. They're going to play Pittsburgh football. And we're going to show up and prepare all week to play Ravens football."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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