If the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to take control of the AFC North on Sunday night at Heinz Field, they must do something they haven't accomplished since Ben Roethlisberger joined the NFL: beat the Baltimore Ravens without him.
That might be far from the only team Pittsburgh has to defeat without Roethlisberger in order to win the division.
The Steelers' four-game win streak has brought them within a game of the North-leading Ravens. It will be Byron Leftwich trying to move them into a first-place tie because Roethlisberger has been ruled out. Pittsburgh is 0-4 against the Ravens without him since the star quarterback's 2004 rookie season.
However, the Steelers are 4-0 at home this year after a 16-13 overtime win over Kansas City on Monday, when Roethlisberger suffered a sprained shoulder after taking a hit in the third quarter. He underwent extensive testing Tuesday, and the following day it was revealed Roethlisberger also has a dislocated rib that is a bigger concern going forward because it could cut into his aorta.
"I can move (the arm) around, that's not the issue," he said. "Sometimes when I do move it the rib will kind of pop out of place again, which is pretty painful. I just try to keep it as still as I can for the most part."
There is no timetable for his return, but Roethlisberger doesn't believe the injuries will end his season even though he said Wednesday the pain level is "nine on a scale of 1-10."
That leaves Pittsburgh relying on a quarterback who hasn't made a start since 2009 with Tampa Bay and hasn't won one since Oct. 6, 2006, while with Jacksonville. Leftwich has since gone 0-6 as a starter.
"I try to prepare as if I am the starter every week," Leftwich said. "Nothing will change. I wish Ben the best. I hope he is healthy. Other than that I will be ready to go."
Leftwich came on in relief last week for his first regular-season action in nearly two years, going 7 of 14 for 73 yards. He led the Steelers on a touchdown drive, but they needed an interception in overtime to set up Shaun Suisham's game-winning field goal.
Leftwich admitted to experiencing some rust.
"I'll trust his assessment if that's his assessment," coach Mike Tomlin said. "But I'm not overly concerned about it. We got a lot of ball in front of us this week. If he is the guy, he'll get a great opportunity to prepare and we'll expect him to play winning football."
Leftwich will likely have Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield with him to help with the running game.
Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,273 yards two years ago, has missed the last four games because of an Achilles injury, but had no setbacks after a full week of practice. He will likely split time with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, who each had 100-yard rushing games while Mendenhall was out.
The Ravens (7-2), meanwhile, are coming off their easiest win of the season. Baltimore set a club record for points in a 55-20 home win over Oakland last week.
It was a welcome departure for a Baltimore team which had been making a living with close wins. The Ravens' previous five victories were by an average of 4.6 points.
Joe Flacco threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns for Baltimore, which scored on six of its first seven possessions and recorded two special teams TDs.
"I think confidence is borne of success," coach John Harbaugh said. "When you do things well, it's a positive thing. It doesn't guarantee anything, just like if you're struggling the week before it doesn't guarantee that you can't do something. Every week does stand on its own, but playing well is a good thing. We'd like to build on that."
Baltimore's uncharacteristically poor defense could make it a little easier for Leftwich to settle in. The Ravens rank 27th in the league in yards allowed (390.2), including 26th against the pass (258.2), though their 10 interceptions rank sixth. They could get some help this week with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (shoulder) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (groin) expected to return after sitting out against the Raiders.
The Steelers are hopeful their rushing attack can bounce back after Dwyer and Redman were held to a combined 77 yards on 27 carries last week. The ground game had at least 140 yards and 4.5 per carry in each of the previous three games.
The defense continues to play well and leads the NFL, allowing 265.7 yards a game. The dominance has mostly come without safety Troy Polamalu (calf), who has only played two games and is doubtful for Sunday. Safety Ryan Clark suffered his second concussion in three games against Kansas City, but Tomlin said he is fine.
Against Pittsburgh's No. 1 pass defense (171.1 yards per game), Baltimore could look to get Ray Rice a little more involved. Rice has 657 rushing yards and 7 TDs on the year but has carried the ball 47 times for 175 yards in the Ravens' last three games.
Baltimore has won 11 straight AFC North games, though its last divisional loss came to Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, 2010. The Ravens completed a season sweep of the Steelers last year with a 23-20 victory at Pittsburgh on Flacco's 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds to play.
The Associated Press News Service
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