By Jeff Zrebiec
The Baltimore Sun
4:18 PM EDT, October 19, 2013
Jeff Zrebiec breaks down each facet of Sunday's game between the Ravens and Steelers at Heinz Field (4:25 p.m. on CBS).
RAVENS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Joe Flacco has played well against the Steelers lately, averaging 228.4 yards passing while throwing six touchdowns and one interception in the past five matchups. Even as the Ravens’ wide receivers get healthier, Flacco is still getting hit too much — he’s been sacked 19 times — and he has more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (7). Wide receiver Torrey Smith had just four catches for 40 yards in two games against Pittsburgh last year, struggling in his matchup against cornerback Ike Taylor.
STEELERS PASSING GAME: Ben Roethlisberger didn’t face the Ravens last year, but nothing has changed as far as the problems he presents. His ability to break tackles and move around the pocket has helped overcome some of the issues the Steelers have had along their offensive line. While Roethlisberger lost his top target Mike Wallace in free agency, Antonio Brown has emerged as one of the NFL’s best young receivers. He’s tied for second in the league with 41 receptions. Tight end Heath Miller’s return from a knee injury has helped.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: The Ravens are expected to simplify some of their blocking schemes, hoping that will resuscitate a running game that hit rock bottom in last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. In that game, they failed to score on four straight attempts from inside the 4-yard line. The Ravens rank 27th in the NFL, averaging 72.7 rushing yards per game, which is better than the Steelers’ 61.0 per game average. However, the Ravens’ Ray Rice ranks last among starting backs in the NFL with an average of just 2.8 yards per carry.
STEELERS RUNNING GAME: Remember when the Steelers were known for a bruising running game? Not anymore. Much like the Ravens, the Steelers’ ground attack has completely vanished, putting even more pressure on Roethlisberger. They rank 31st in the NFL in rushing, ahead of only the winless Jacksonville Jaguars. Second-round pick Le’Veon Bell has provided a little jolt the past two games, but he’s still averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. Felix Jones is Pittsburgh’s change-of-pace back.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: In two of the past three games, the Ravens have looked vulnerable against the run, and Packers rookie Eddie Lacy gained 120 yards on 23 carries against them last week. But they still have allowed just one rushing touchdown all season, tying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a league low. They also are holding the opposition to 98.2 yards rushing per game, which is tied for seventh in the NFL. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith leads the Ravens with 53 tackles. The Ravens could use more from nose tackle Haloti Ngata.
STEELERS RUSH DEFENSE: Pittsburgh had the second stingiest run defense in the NFL last year, but the Steelers have slipped in that area as well. They currently rank 22nd in the NFL, allowing 114.8 yards per game on the ground. They’ve also surrendered six rushing touchdowns, more than just three NFL teams. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons leads the Steelers with 46 tackles, but Pittsburgh has missed big nose tackle Casey Hampton. Rookie starting linebacker Jarvis Jones is dealing with a concussion.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: No defensive player has terrorized Ben Roethlisberger more than Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has sacked the Steelers quarterback 15 ½ times. The Ravens, who rank second in the NFL with 22 sacks, continue to excel at creating pressure with their front four. However, communication issues and missed tackles are still too common. The defensive backs will need to be extra disciplined this week, considering Roethlisberger’s ability to improvise and extend plays.
STEELERS PASS DEFENSE: The healthy return of Troy Polamalu has been a positive development for the Steelers, whose secondary is playing at a high level. The Steelers have allowed a league-low four passing touchdowns this season, thanks largely to the play of veteran safety Ryan Clark and cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. Despite the presence of LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers have struggled to mount a consistent pass rush and force turnovers. They have a negative-nine turnover ratio.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: The Ravens continue to take the good with the bad on special teams. Ill-timed penalties have affected their field position, and punter Sam Koch has gotten two punts blocked in the past six weeks after that hadn’t happened since the 2009 season. However, Justin Tucker has hit 10 straight field-goal attempts, and Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss have settled into a dangerous return tandem. Jones beat the Steelers with a punt return touchdown in the Ravens’ most recent visit to Heinz Field.
STEELERS SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Shaun Suisham, who beat the Ravens with a 42-yard field goal as time expired in the most recent meeting between the teams, is 10-for-10 this season on field-goal attempts. Signed after he was released by the New England Patriots, punter Zoltan Mesko has struggled, averaging just 42.7 yards per punt, the second-worst average in the NFL. He’s also placed just two punts inside the opponent’s 20. Antonio Brown and Felix Jones are the Steelers’ primary return men.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have won three straight games in Pittsburgh, all by a three-point margin, so they certainly won’t be affected by the hostile environment. Injuries also don’t figure to play a big factor, as the Ravens are as healthy as they have been all season. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 22-9 against AFC North opponents, and they’ve won 13 of their past 15 divisional games. They also understand the magnitude of this game, not wanting to fall to 3-4 heading into their bye week.
STEELERS INTANGIBLES: The Steelers injected some life into their season after an 0-4 start with a 19-6 victory over the New York Jets last Sunday. But the result doesn’t change the fact that this isn’t a typical Steelers team. They’ve struggled to create turnovers and put pressure on quarterbacks, hallmarks of past Pittsburgh defenses. On offense, they’ve failed to run the football and convert in the red zone. But the Ravens tend to bring out the best in their AFC North rivals.
PREDICTION: There was a time when Heinz Field was the Ravens’ house of horrors, but those days are over, and the Ravens clearly relish the challenge of going there and facing their long-time nemesis. The games are always close and this one will probably be no different. But as inconsistent as they’ve been through six games, the Ravens are further along right now than the Steelers are. A couple of forced turnovers and a late Flacco-led scoring drive will be enough to send the Ravens into the bye week with a 4-3 record and deliver the Steelers’ postseason hopes a significant blow. RAVENS, 19-16
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