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Flacco faces challenge in Steelers' top-ranked pass defense

OWINGS MILLS - Spreading the ball around to a number of different players, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took advantage of a porous Oakland Raiders secondary that had a converted safety at one cornerback spot and a player making just his second appearance of the season at the other.

Flacco exploited other areas of the Raiders' pass defense as well. Seven different Baltimore pass catchers finished with at least catch of 17 yards or longer.

It'll be a tougher test for Flacco and the passing game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night.

The Steelers are the NFL's top-ranked defense against the pass.

"They have a great back end," Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones said of Pittsburgh's secondary. "It's going to be a fun [matchup]. ... They're physical. They can run. They play everything until the whistle blows. It's going to be a tough fight."

Flacco has struggled on the road this year, but has had success throughout his career at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, the site of Sunday night's game.

He tossed a game-winning touchdown in the waning moments of Baltimore's dramatic 23-20 win at Pittsburgh last November, capping a methodical 12-play, 92-yard drive that started with the Ravens trailing by four and just more than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Flacco finished the game 28-of-47 for 300 yards and the touchdown.

A year earlier, he threw for 256 yards and a score in leading Baltimore to a 17-14 road victory against the Steelers, although he did also toss an interception in the game.

"We've really gone and played pretty well there," Flacco said, "so we should be happy and confident when we take the field, and I think that we are. I'm sure that does add to a little bit to why we are confident there."

Flacco has thrown for an average of 250 yards in his last six regular season meetings against Pittsburgh with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions in those six games.

But he'll be challenged Sunday.

Behind the play of cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, and with help from what has been a traditionally potent pass rush, the Steelers have limited opposing quarterbacks to an average of just 171 yards per game.

Pittsburgh has limited six of the last eight quarterbacks it's faced to 177 yards or less, including each of the last four.

The Steelers had the NFL's top-ranked pass defense last year as well.

"They've done what they always do," Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said. "They pressure you, first of all. They've got very good pass rushers. ... I think they have very good corners on both sides of the ball [and] their safeties play with good vision.

"It's always a combination of the front end and the back end, and they've just done a good job."

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was just 11-of-26 for 154 yards with an interception amid the Chiefs' 16-13 overtime loss to the Steelers Monday night.

Reigning Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning managed only 125 yards against Pittsburgh just a week earlier, completing just 10 of his 25 pass attempts with an interception and no touchdowns.

"[The pass defense] has challenged throws on a consistent basis," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "To me, that's the essence of good pass defense - to be consistently competitive, to challenge throws, to make people work to beat you.

"They've done that regardless of circumstance. Of course, we haven't always been perfect. We've made mistakes, but I like the effort. It's consistent, and the guys consistently challenge throws."

The tall, athletic 6-foot-2, 195-pound Taylor has long been considered one of the better cornerbacks in the AFC while Lewis is an emerging playmaker in just his first full season as a starter.

Lewis leads the Steelers with 16 pass deflections, the second-highest total in the NFL.

Tomlin described the 6-foot, 210-pound Lewis as "combative."

Lewis was a third-round pick of Pittsburgh in the 2009 NFL draft.

"They're playing well," Flacco said of Taylor and Lewis. "We'll see what happens on the back end, but those guys are going to come up, be physical, and they'll probably rely on those guys a good amount to play our guys pretty tight. I have a lot of confidence in our receivers.

"We've played Taylor a good amount over the years, and Lewis has started to show up a little bit. Obviously now, he is in there for the long haul, so it'll be exciting to get out there and get a feel for them [in] live action."

Follow Matt Zenitz on Twitter @mzenitz.

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