AFC North: Roethlisberger out

How Steelers might play minus Big Ben

November, 28, 2009
11/28/09
5:40
PM ET
The Steelers will face AFC North rival Baltimore on Sunday night without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) as starter. Instead, it will be the talented but supremely inexperienced Dennis Dixon leading Pittsburgh’s offense.

How does the Steelers’ game plan change?

The first thing that comes to mind, oddly enough, is Pittsburgh’s kickoff coverage, which has been abysmal this season. In this game more than any previous one, the Steelers will need to cover kickoffs properly, as they will not have the firepower on offense to overcome mishaps. Of course, Dixon has no power over how this will play out.

As for what actually ensues with Dixon behind center, the differences should be noticeable, as anyone would expect. While Roethlisberger is far from the most disciplined technician, his ability to recognize and manipulate coverage has improved dramatically of late. Dixon’s view will be much muddier. The Ravens are excellent at disguising their coverages, intentions and especially blitz packages, as they give the illusion of more rushers attacking the quarterback than actually are coming. Facing Baltimore’s defense can be very taxing mentally on an inexperienced quarterback.

But this defense is not as daunting as it was in the past. The loss of coordinator Rex Ryan has been felt in this regard, and because of the extreme weakness at the cornerback position, defensive play calling has been handcuffed. Regardless of who is behind center for Pittsburgh, wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have a massive advantage over the Ravens’ starting corners, and that advantage increases even further when Pittsburgh uses three- and four-receiver sets to attack the Ravens’ suspect secondary depth. The worry here for Pittsburgh is that Dixon, in his first NFL start, will still need to identify the proper target and deliver the football accurately in a timely manner. That will determine the Steelers’ offensive success Sunday night.

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Ravens finally catch a break

November, 28, 2009
11/28/09
12:12
PM ET
Whether it’s close losses, controversial penalties or injuries, the Baltimore Ravens haven’t caught many breaks during the 2009 season. But the Ravens received a huge boon Saturday when the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to sit starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for Sunday's game with the Ravens.
Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger
Dennis Dixon, who has been a third-stringer this year, will start for Pittsburgh. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch had wrist surgery this week, forcing Dixon into action.

Credit the Steelers for being cautious with their franchise quarterback, but this decision likely will cost the team a huge game in the standings. Both Pittsburgh (6-4) and Baltimore (5-5) are fighting for the two wild-card spots in the AFC.

Expect the Ravens to break their three-game losing streak against the Steelers. Roethlisberger has given Baltimore plenty of trouble with his improvisation and ability to keep plays alive. Dixon doesn’t have nearly that level of ability or experience, so the Steelers should be very one-dimensional on offense and easier to defend.

This is a must-win game for Baltimore, and Pittsburgh had a chance to virtually end its biggest rival's season with a win Sunday in prime time. But without "Big Ben," look for the Ravens to improve their wild-card hopes this weekend, while things will get very dicey after Pittsburgh likely suffers its first three-game losing streak of the season.

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