The Picks Are In: Ravens vs. Steelers
Joe Flacco wishes that Ben Roethlisberger was playing, but it's because of his absence that experts and even Vegas think the Ravens can pull off their first win of the season.
Can one man affect things that much?
No … and yes.
The Steelers have still put together a strong winning record of 8-2 without Roethlisberger since his first career start in Week 3 of 2004, against teams other than the Ravens. But when Pittsburgh plays without their franchise quarterback against Baltimore, the record is very different at 1-5.
It was Charlie Batch under center in 2012 when the Steelers won without Big Ben. Can Michael Vick do the same? The numbers don't really favor him either. He is 3-16 in his last 19 starts.
The Ravens are missing Terrell Suggs and three other starters, too. James Hurst will take over at left tackle for Eugene Monroe and will have to protect Flacco from the beast that is James Harrison. Rookie tight end Maxx Williams will fill in for one of Flacco's favorite targets, Crockett Gillmore. And Lawrence Guy is stepping in for veteran Chris Canty.
But even all of those Ravens losses don't affect the betting lines as much as Roethlisberger. After news of his injury broke, the Ravens went from four-point underdogs to 2.5-point road favorites by Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
The Ravens have been favorites in three out of four games thus far, including against the Raiders and Bengals.
"By some small miracle, the Ravens are predicted to win a game. Despite the Baltimore squad traveling to the hostile environment of Heinz Field, the oddsmakers still have the Ravens coming out on top against the Roethlisberger-less Steelers," wrote Baltimore Beatdown's Nathan Beaucage. "It's a little surprising that the Ravens would be favorites after their early struggles, but this shows just how much losing your quarterback affects a team."
It has swayed some analysts, too. Of the 45 pundits below, 31 believe Baltimore will be victorious over their arch rivals.
The Baltimore Sun: 4 of 7 panelists pick Ravens
"If Ben Roethlisberger was playing quarterback for the Steelers, the Ravens would be starting 0-4. But Michael Vick won't be able to make the throws Roethlisberger can, and the Ravens won't be challenged by him." -- Jon Meoli
ESPN: 4 of 7 panelists pick Steelers (not all 13 had picks turned in this morning)
"I'm going with Pittsburgh, and for this reason: Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. They'll find a way to get the ball into these guys' hands early, and this defense has been playing good enough ball that they can stop Baltimore from scoring enough points to beat them in Pittsburgh." -- Ryan Clark
CBS Sports: 6 of 8 panelists pick Ravens
"It's easy to look at the Ravens record and say 'Wow, this team is bad, they're never going to win a game this season.' However, Baltimore might not actually be as bad as you think. … Roethlisberger has missed six games in his career against Baltimore and the Steelers are 1-5 in those games. Call me crazy, but I think that favors the Ravens." -- John Breech
Fox Sports: 4 of 7 panelists pick Ravens
"I was in the building and on the field for that wild fourth quarter of Bengals-Ravens last Sunday, which might someday be discussed in Baltimore circles as the 'Steve Smith-A.J. Green Game.' It was as devastating and as deflating a September loss that I can remember ever seeing in person. The Ravens fought back from a 14-0 deficit, took the lead, and then surrendered another lead late in the game at home, when their defense just couldn't stop Andy Dalton. John Harbaugh's team will always compete and they'll always show up for Steelers week, but it's hard to imagine them bouncing back from that short rest – backup QB or not – on the road." -- Peter Schrager
ProFootballTalk.com: 2 of 2 panelists pick Ravens
"The Ravens last won a game in the 2014 wild-card round in Pittsburgh, against Ben Roethlisberger. Without Roethlisberger, the desperate Ravens should be able to break their streak of bad luck." -- Mike Florio
Bleacher Report: 7 of 8 panelists pick Ravens
"[Mike Tomlin] expects the Ravens to play a lot better than their record when they visit the Steel City… Unfortunately for the Steelers, so do our voters, predicting the Ravens will notch win No. 1 over the Mike Vick-led Steelers." -- Gary Davenport
SB Nation: 5 of 7 panelists pick Ravens
Re-Visiting Torrey, Crabtree Decisions
With the Ravens lacking a receiving threat outside of Steve Smith Sr., it was only matter of time before somebody looked back at the Ravens' offseason free agency decisions.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome opted not to re-sign his former second-round draft pick Torrey Smith, who quite frankly the team couldn't afford at the time.
He signed a reported five-year, $40 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers and has gotten off to a slow start. Through three games, Smith has notched seven receptions for 131 yards and one touchdown. He was held to no catches in a blowout loss to the Cardinals last week.
"Regardless of what Smith does for San Francisco, his absence is still being felt by the Ravens offense," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "Just think of how many times over the first three games that Joe Flacco has rolled out and looked deep downfield before deciding to dump the ball off to fullback Kyle Juszczyk or settle for something underneath.
"In the past, he was putting that ball up to Smith, hoping for a big catch, or at least a pass interference call that often came. Not this year."
It's tough to completely question the Ravens' decision, however. After all, the draft was still ahead and nobody could have predicted that first-round receiver Breshad Perriman would miss all of training camp, the preseason and at least the first four games.
And again, the Ravens simply didn't have the money for Smith. Somebody they may have been able to afford, however, was Michael Crabtree. He was a free agent after playing in San Francisco for six years. The Ravens also passed on him, and he signed with the Oakland Raiders for a one-year deal worth $3.2 million.
He hasn't exploded onto the Oakland scene, but has 18 catches for a 184 yards and one touchdown. That's more than double the receptions of Smith in San Fran, but only 50 more yards. More importantly, it triples that of any Ravens receiver not named Smith Sr.
"I was constantly being asked about [the Ravens'] interest level in Michael Crabtree, who was readily available," wrote Zrebiec. "I dismissed the idea emphatically, citing Crabtree's mediocre 2014 season and questions about his health and reputation. Well, it sure looks now that he would have been a solid, low-cost addition. Crabtree isn't setting the world on fire with the Oakland Raiders, but he's been pretty solid.
"…He's not the big and fast wide receiver that the Ravens lack, but he's a reliable target, and an affordable one, too."
How Much Does Run Game Miss Gary Kubiak?
When Justin Forsett re-signed with the Ravens this offseason, he said he wasn't too worried about Gary Kubiak departing for Denver.
With Kubiak as offensive coordinator, he took the Ravens from No. 30 in rushing in 2013 to No. 8 in 2014. And now that he's gone, the Ravens have fallen back to No. 27.
"Six months [after he left], it's officially time to worry," wrote ESPN's Jamison Hensley.
"The struggles of the ground game [are] the biggest surprise of the Ravens' 0-3 start. Forsett was back, and so were the Ravens' top seven offensive linemen. The only piece missing is Kubiak."
Forsett doesn't agree, however. He has been clear that the Ravens haven't repeated their success simply because they aren't executing. And you have to look no further than at tackles Rick Wagner and James Hurst's Pro Football Focus grades to see he has a point. Both rank in the bottom 10 in run blocking.
"We've got to have a sense of urgency, but you can't panic," Forsett said. "We've got to keep working. And when it hits, it's going to hit and we'll be that explosive team that we know we can be in the run game."
Monroe Hasn't Been Durable … In Baltimore
In his three seasons with the Ravens, Monroe has played in just 23 of a possible 33 games. He's had various injuries that have held him out, including a concussion that will make him miss Thursday night's showdown against the Steelers.
But looking at his career in Jacksonville, nobody would have ever predicted his slate of injuries in Baltimore.
In his five years as a Jaguar, Monroe played in 65 of 68 games.
"When the Ravens acquired Eugene Monroe from the Jacksonville Jaguars early in the 2013 season, they were confident that they were getting a solid and durable performer who would stabilize the left tackle position," wrote Zrebiec.
"It's been a tough run for a player who had been extremely durable early in his career."
What's It Gonna Take To Get Babin Playing?
The Ravens signed veteran Jason Babin immediately after they lost Suggs for the season with an Achilles tear. Yet they haven't activated him in two possible games thus far, and the defense has lacked a consistent pass rush outside of Elvis Dumervil.
While Dumervil has 10 quarterback hurries this season (and one sack/strip), nobody else on the Ravens has more than three.
"If the Ravens aren't going to play Babin, it makes you wonder why they signed him in the first place," wrote Hensley.