PITTSBURGH — Breaking down game tape of the Ravens this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers might have been reminded a little bit of themselves, but not just because they were watching a team with a physical defense and a strong-armed quarterback.
As the Steelers head into Sunday's showdown at Heinz Field, they have been troubled by some of the same problems as the Ravens — the lack of a consistent running game, leaky pass protection and losing the turnover battle.
Unlike the Ravens, the Steelers were unable to overcome them, starting the season with four straight losses.
After a timely bye week, a much-publicized pingpong ban and last weekend's road win over the New York Jets, the Steelers feel they have a handle on what has ailed them and are heading in the right direction. But as they sit in last place in the AFC North, they know there will be little margin for error Sunday against the Ravens and going forward if they are to make the NFL playoffs.
"We're taking every game one at a time and the approach, the mindset and the mentality that we have to win this one game," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Now that it's Baltimore and it's in the AFC North, it means a little bit more, but we're still in a pretty big hole."
The Steelers lost to the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears at home, the Cincinnati Bengals on the road and the Minnesota Vikings in London. After their first 0-4 start since 1968, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin banned pingpong and other games in the locker room.
He would not say whether there was any correlation after they beat the Jets, 19-6, last week. More likely, though, the Steelers were finally able to win their first game because they eliminated turnovers, protected Roethlisberger better and finally produced some sacks and takeaways.
In the days after the win, one of the primary topics of discussion in Pittsburgh was the play of the offensive line, particularly a sluggish running game that ranks 31st in the NFL with an average of 60.5 rushing yards per game. The Steelers are on pace to have the lowest rushing average in franchise history since 1935, when they were known as the Pirates.
Running back Felix Jones leads the Steelers with 92 rushing yards and the team is averaging 3.1 yards per carry, which is 30th in the league but still better than the Ravens' 2.7 average.
Second-round draft pick Le'Veon Bell is the starter now after missing the first three games of the season, and Tomlin likes Bell's vision and attitude when approaching holes. The Steelers rushed for 73 yards on 26 carries against the Jets, but the players insist the running game is close to clicking.
"We feel like we've got the weapons," Roethlisberger said. "We need to be balanced. I think the running game is coming. It's almost there. I know the numbers aren't what we want them to be, but it's being effective enough that it's opening up play-action pass for us."
The struggles of a Pittsburgh offensive line that has undergone significant turnover has put Roethlisberger under duress, too. The Steelers lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey in Week 1 and traded for Levi Brown to replace struggling left tackle Mike Adams. But Brown tore his triceps before playing a down, pushing Kelvin Beachum into the starting lineup.
In five games, Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times — one fewer than Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco — and he has been hit 17 other times, according to ProFootballFocus.
"I'm concerned, but no more concerned than I usually am," Tomlin said. "Quarterbacks get hit. That's the nature of the game. That's why people rush people. That's why they employ people like [Terrell] Suggs and [Elvis] Dumervil. It's our job to minimize that, and we're working to do it this week."
Roethlisberger has averaged 299 passing yards per game and has six touchdown passes. But he has thrown five interceptions and fumbled five times. The Steelers have a minus-nine turnover differential, 29th in the NFL, but they did not turn the ball over against the Jets. The Ravens are tied for 25th at minus-three.
The problems are not all on the Steelers offense, though. The Pittsburgh defense hasn't created the kind of chaos it typically did in the past. But the Steelers had two takeaways against the Jets, including an interception near the goal line, after not having forced a turnover in their first four games. They also had four sacks after getting three total in their previous games.
"We're not trying to really worry about stats," Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon said. "We want to go out there and play physical football, play fast and play hard and play smart. And those stats will take care of themselves."
The Steelers say they are focused solely on beating the Ravens — who are 3-3 despite their struggles — because they know they need to climb over their rivals if they are to escape the hole they dug themselves into.
"We've got a great opportunity to drag a team down in a hole we are [in] right now," Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "What a perfect opponent in front of our hometown fans."
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