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Mike Preston: Ravens need to win the game inside the game with Steelers defensive line | COMMENTARY

It’s hard for Ravens coach John Harbaugh to single out any position or individual on the Pittsburgh defense because the unit is as dominant as the Steelers are impressive.

But if the Ravens are to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, they have to control or at least play to a stalemate with the Steelers front four, which includes nose tackle Tyson Alualu, tackle Cameron Heyward, end Stephon Tuitt and outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

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Any other outcome will probably mean defeat, and in a painful way.

“They’re one of the top defenses in the league, statistically, and it shows up on the tape,” Harbaugh said. “Their front is as good as any. We got a chance to know those guys a little bit — in the Pro Bowl even better — with Watt and Heyward. They’re dominant players. They’re wrecking-ball-type players. You have to account for those guys. And not just those guys; Tuitt is playing great, [right outside linebacker Bud] Dupree is playing great.

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“So, it’s a Pittsburgh defense,” Harbaugh said. “They run the same schemes they’ve been running. They run it very effectively. [It’s] a very aggressive defense. We have a lot of respect for them.”

The question is if the Ravens have the manpower to stop them, especially inside on the offensive line. The two guard and center positions have been the weakest for the Ravens for several years, even last season when they had the most productive running game in the history of the NFL.

Left guard Bradley Bozeman has been solid, but center Matt Skura is still trying to regain top form after offseason knee surgery. Right guard Tyre Phillips is only a rookie. With each game, he gets better, but Sunday’s game will be only his seventh.

Now, he has to mix it up with Alualu, Heyward and Tuitt. Heyward is one of the top linemen in the league, having compiled 110 solos tackles in his last three seasons. He also has had 29 sacks, 63 hits on the quarterback and 37 tackles for losses.

His quickness is disruptive to any running game. Alualu is stout, strong and good at diagnosing play. Tuitt is bigger, just as strong and can drive through blockers.

Pittsburgh is No. 1 in total defense, allowing only 286.3 yards per game. They are No. 2 against the run, holding opponents to an average of 68.2 yards. They cause a lot of problems by moving linemen around and taking advantage of matchups, especially in the gaps.

The Steelers like to present multiple looks, so it won’t be surprising to see them in a three- or four-man fronts. The Steelers don’t just play the physical game but the mental one as well.

“This year, they’re the No. 1 in just about every single category for defenses; pressure rate, sack rate,” Skura said. “So, yes, we have to get a great look from our scout team, which we have this week, of all their different looks, their blitzes, their intensity, everything; just because they’re playing lights out so far this year.

“We need that look to be prepared and on our game as much as we can leading into Sunday. So, yes — film study, practice, all of it,” he said.

The Steelers have several strong pass rushers with most of the 26 sacks coming from the front five. Watt, who will play over right offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., has 5.5 sacks followed by DuPree’s five and Tuitt’s four.

A lot of those are the result of inside pressure, especially for Heyward. Last Oct. 6, the Ravens beat the Steelers, 26-23, in overtime but quarterback Lamar Jackson was sacked five times.

“The Steelers pass rush, when you’re preparing for them, it really starts there when you’re throwing the football,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “They’ll blitz, they’ll rush five, and they have really good pass rushers, and they have guys who really push the pocket well inside. So, we have to take that into account certainly every time we pass.

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“But they’re very good players, and we’ve got to get ready for that challenge,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways schematically you can help that out. But the bottom line is we have to execute, understand who we’re playing and get ready to roll.”

And the Ravens can’t afford to fall behind early. They have the league’s No. 1 rushing attack but are No. 31 in passing. Getting big, chunk plays through the air is not their forte, and neither is pass blocking.

“Their defensive line is great,” Jackson said. “Their front four, those guys get off the ball, they get after the quarterback, force a lot of strip-sacks. T.J. and Bud, they do a great job of getting to the quarterback, harassing the run game. I feel like our offensive line is going to be ready.”

They better be.

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