PASSING GAME: Quarterback Joe Flacco couldn't get much done against the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago as he completed 20 of 32 passes for 164 yards and no touchdowns. Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor held Torrey Smith, the Ravens' top downfield threat, to one 7-yard catch, even though Smith was targeted seven times. The Ravens passing attack is ranked 11th in the NFL, but only one team (the Dallas Cowboys) has held Flacco under 300 passing yards at M&T Bank Stadium this season.
RUNNING GAME: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said stopping the Ravens offense starts with limiting Ray Rice. Pittsburgh had great success two weeks ago, holding him to 40 yards on 20 carries and 53 yards on five catches. Rice hasn't hit the 100-yard rushing mark since Week 5, but he was encouraged that the team rushed for 127 yards against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
RUSH DEFENSE: The Ravens are 26th in the NFL in rush defense, allowing 128.5 yards per game. However, they've surrendered an average of 103.3 rushing yards the past four games and haven't allowed an individual 100-yard rusher in three straight weeks. The Steelers rushed for 135 yards against them two weeks ago, but that was skewed by Leftwich's 31-yard touchdown run. The Ravens' top two tacklers — linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Bernard Pollard — have missed practice time this week with injuries.
PASS DEFENSE: After a stretch in which they had just five sacks over a five-game span, the Ravens have 12 sacks over the past three games. They had three against Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive tackle Arthur Jones have elevated their games, and Corey Graham has been a quality fill-in for cornerback Jimmy Smith. This group won the matchup against the Pittsburgh offense handily two weeks ago and has made significant improvements.
SPECIAL TEAMS: It would be surprising if the Steelers give Jacoby Jones an opportunity to hurt them this time around. His 63-yard punt return for a touchdown two weeks ago was the Ravens' only score. Jones, second in the AFC in kick-return average, has a sore ankle but expects to play Sunday. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker missed one of two field-goal attempts against Pittsburgh. However, he's coming off a game in which he made the tying and winning kicks.
INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have turned the tables on their longtime rivals, beating them three straight times. With a victory, the Ravens would secure their third regular-season sweep over Pittsburgh and clinch the AFC North title. They're entering the game with plenty of confidence, having won 15 straight regular-season games at M&T Bank Stadium and having outscored opponents 184-108 there this season. They've also won 10 of their past 11 games against AFC foes.
PASSING GAME: In two games since Ben Roethlisberger went down with a shoulder injury, Steelers quarterbacks — first Byron Leftwich and then Charlie Batch — are 38-for-73 for 400 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. Roethlisberger is out again this week, giving Batch the start. The Steelers hope the return of wide receiver Antonio Brown boosts their passing game, but potentially being without starting linemen Mike Adams and Willie Colon won't help.
RUNNING GAME: After watching all four of his backs lose fumbles in a horrific 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns last week, Tomlin has abandoned the running back-by-committee approach and will lean heavily on Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer, who leads the Steelers with 429 rushing yards, gave the Ravens problems two weeks ago, rushing for 55 yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
RUSH DEFENSE: This is again one of the Steelers' strengths as they have held opponents to 91.5 rushing yards per game, tied for fifth in the NFL, and seven touchdowns. They have allowed more than 100 rushing yards just twice in their past eight games and held the Ravens to a paltry 2 yards per carry two weeks ago. Defensive tackle Casey Hampton busts up his share of runs with inside penetration, while linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote lead the team in tackles.
PASS DEFENSE: The Steelers might not have skilled pass rusher LaMarr Woodley, but they are prepared to welcome back perennial Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. This group, the stingiest in the NFL against the pass (165.7 yards per game), has overcome injuries all year, thanks to unheralded players such as linebacker Jason Worilds and cornerback Keenan Lewis. In the past six games, the Steelers have allowed just three passing touchdowns while getting four interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Shaun Suisham has been every bit as effective as the Ravens' Tucker, converting 21 of 22 field-goal attempts, with his lone miss coming from 54 yards. Rookie Chris Rainey leads NFL rookies with a return average of 26.5 yards. As Jones proved two weeks ago with his exhilarating punt-return touchdown, the Steelers' coverage units can be exploited. They allow 10.9 yards per punt return and 25.3 per kickoff return.
INTANGIBLES: The Steelers come to Baltimore with the look of a reeling team. They've lost two straight games, they're 2-4 on the road this season and their offense continues to look punchless and mistake-prone without Roethlisberger. However, the Steelers have turned things around before and won't be intimidated by playing at M&T Bank Stadium. They were the last visiting team to win there, beating the Ravens, 13-10, in December 2010.
PREDICTION: Regardless of who is under center, the Steelers are a dangerous team and have the NFL's top-ranked defense. Ten of the past 12 meetings between the two rivals have been one-possession games, and seven have been decided by a field goal. It would hardly be surprising if this chapter were to come down to the final possession. But without a healthy Roethlisberger, it's hard to envision the Steelers breaking the Ravens' 16-game home winning streak (including the postseason).
Ravens, 24-17Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun