Scouting report for Ravens-Steelers AFC North showdown Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium

RAVENS PASSING GAME: Pittsburgh typically brings out a sharper and less mistake-prone Joe Flacco, who has thrown 20 touchdown passes compared with nine interceptions and has compiled an 84.7 quarterback rating in 17 regular-season meetings versus the Steelers. Flacco has been picked off in a league-high nine straight games dating to last year. The Ravens badly need to get wide receivers Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman involved. They’ve combined for four catches for 26 yards and have made no downfield impact.

STEELERS PASSING GAME: After much preseason hype, the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense hasn’t found its rhythm. Roethlisberger has five touchdown passes and one interception, but he put the blame on himself for the team’s tepid offensive performances. The Steelers rank 15th in passing yards per game (233.3 yards), 19th in yards per attempt (6.7) and 25th in third-down conversion rate (32.4). In two games against the Ravens last year, Antonio Brown had 17 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns.

EDGE: STEELERS

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RAVENS RUNNING GAME: After Terrance West lost a fumble last week and Buck Allen didn’t play for much of the first half, it would hardly be surprising to see Alex Collins get a more prominent, if not leading, role in the running game. Collins rushed nine times for 82 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars, albeit after the game had turned into a rout. His speed and elusiveness has added a different dimension. The Ravens average 142.3 rushing yards per game, the fourth highest total in the NFL.

STEELERS RUNNING GAME: Star running back Le’Veon Bell missed all of training camp and the preseason while holding out for a new contract. That’s been cited as a potential reason the running game has yet to get going this year. Pittsburgh is averaging only 69 rushing yards per game. Only two NFL teams — the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants — average fewer. Bell, who has shown some signs of breaking out, is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. He has typically been effective out of the backfield. His top backup is rookie James Conner.

EDGE: STEELERS

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RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: A normally stout rush defense was exposed a bit against the Jaguars with Brandon Williams out and Brent Urban missing most of the game. Urban is now done for the season, putting even more pressure on defensive linemen Carl Davis, Willie Henry and Bronson Kaufusi to emerge as consistent contributors. The front has to keep blockers off C.J. Mosley, who struggled last week. Patient and powerful, Bell is probably the biggest challenge the run defense faces all year.

STEELERS RUSH DEFENSE: Pittsburgh’s run defense got off to a solid start, yet the Steelers were exposed in that area last week. They gave up 220 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a surprising overtime loss to the Chicago Bears. For the season, the Steelers rank 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3). The four rushing touchdowns they’ve surrendered are tied for the second most in the league. The return of Stephon Tuitt should help. Ryan Shazier leads the Steelers with 26 tackles.

EDGE: RAVENS

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RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: The NFL is a copycat league, so expect the Steelers to attack the Ravens linebackers and safeties in coverage the way the Jaguars did to much success last week. It’s early, but Jimmy Smith is re-establishing himself as a No. 1 cornerback. It will be interesting to see whether defensive coordinator Dean Pees has him shadow Brown. Rookie Marlon Humphrey, who gets better every week, could get a shot as well. Terrell Suggs has gone six straight games against the Steelers without a sack.

STEELERS PASS DEFENSE: Like the Ravens, the Steelers have worked extremely hard to improve this group. The early returns have been very good as the Steelers are allowing the second fewest passing yards per game (136.7) and they are tied for second in the league with 11 sacks. Rookie T.J. Watt, who had a memorable debut, is expected to return this week after missing the previous game with a groin injury. Defensive end Cameron Heyward is playing at a high level, and Joe Haden has solidified the secondary.

EDGE: STEELERS

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RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: As in every other phase, the Ravens were shaky on special teams last week in London. Otherwise, they haven’t been too bad. They just haven’t made any game-changing plays that Jerry Rosburg’s units are accustomed to making. The Ravens, who have used three players on kick returns, have yet to take one out of the end zone. They are in the middle of the pack in punt-return average. Their coverage teams, however, have been good statistically.

STEELERS SPECIAL TEAMS: The Steelers have been victimized by some game-changing Ravens special teams plays in the past. Chris Boswell doesn’t have a huge leg, so the Ravens should get some chances to return kicks. Boswell is 5-for-6 on field-goal attempts. Jordan Berry has a net punting average of just 41.9 yards. Eli Rogers is the team’s primary punt returner while JuJu Smith-Schuster and Terrell Watson have handled kickoff returns. Brown is an option on punts as well.

EDGE: RAVENS

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RAVENS INTANGIBLES: This hasn’t been an easy week for the Ravens, who had to recover from a long road trip, an embarrassing 37-point loss and another season-ending injury to a key player with Urban going down. However, this is Steelers week and the Ravens are usually in solid form in these matchups. The Ravens lost a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh last Christmas Day, but they had beaten Mike Tomlin’s team in four previous games. The Ravens have also won four straight against their rival at M&T Bank Stadium.

STEELERS INTANGIBLES: Tomlin’s team has spent the week answering more questions about its handling of the national anthem last week than its matchup against the Ravens. Pittsburgh was widely viewed as the New England Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC, but it has the look of a team that is still finding itself. The Steelers will undoubtedly be fully engaged against their archrival and nobody expects their offense to struggle for long. The Steelers are the third-most penalized team in the NFL.

EDGE: EVEN

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PREDICTION: Since 2008, John Harbaugh’s first season and Tomlin’s second, 15 of the 18 regular-season matchups between these teams have been decided by seven points or fewer. Twelve of those games have been decided by three points or fewer. Why expect anything different? The Ravens have raised their level more than the Steelers in recent matchups and that’s been especially true at M&T Bank Stadium, but Pittsburgh comes to Baltimore far healthier than the home team and with much more firepower.

Steelers, 23-20

 

 

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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