Preston: Ravens believe they have learned painful lessons from recent losses to Steelers

Maybe next time they play golf together, Ravens safety Eric Weddle can talk a little trash to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The two are close friends and spend a lot of time together during the offseason. Last year at the Pro Bowl, Roethlisberger couldn’t help but take a few jabs at Weddle.

“He is always talking junk,” Weddle said. “He is a down-to-earth, fun dude that’s competitive. He even talked crap to my dad when he saw him at the Pro Bowl. My dad walks in and asked us how we did golfing, and Ben had beaten me by a couple of strokes. He says, ‘That’s the third time this year.’ ”

Weddle and the Ravens (2-1) get another shot at the Steelers (1-1-1) on Sunday night. The Steelers have won the past three meetings, but this week marks the Ravens’ best chance in recent years. Three games into the season, the Ravens are one of the most complete teams in the NFL with the No. 1 ranked defense and No. 13 offense.

Few teams can match that balance, including the AFC’s hottest offensive team, the Kansas City Chiefs (No. 7 offense, No. 32 defense). The Steelers have as much disparity as the Chiefs with No. 2 offense and No. 29 defense.

So barring injuries or a few turnovers, it’s safe to assume the Ravens will score some against the Steelers and their woeful secondary. The outcome, though, will be decided on how much, if at all, the Ravens can slow Pittsburgh’s passing offense, which is averaging 363.3 yards a game.

It’s the start of a streak of marquee quarterbacks the Ravens must face in 2018. Besides going against Roethlisberger twice, the Ravens have the Atlanta FalconsMatt Ryan, New Orleans SaintsDrew Brees, Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton and Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers — not to mention the Tampa Bay BuccaneersRyan Fitzpatrick, Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr and Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes.

“Early on in my career, it seemed like every year we were playing Peyton [Manning], Tom [Brady] and Denver’s Jay Cutler back every year,” said Weddle, who spent nine seasons with the Chargers before coming to Baltimore in 2016. “Now you’re talking about Drew Brees, Ben, Matt Ryan — studs. They are the best in the league. That’s the excitement, right? That’s the challenge. That’s what you live for as a defense.”

The Ravens will need to listen to what Weddle is saying. When great quarterbacks such as Manning and John Elway got into a groove, they were unstoppable. It’s the same for Brady or Roethlisberger.

But the key, according to Weddle, is to not become unnerved when Roethlisberger gets hot.

“I don’t care what anyone says. When the great ones get going and catch on fire, there’s nothing you can call. It doesn’t matter,” Weddle said of the Ravens defense, which is ranked No. 2 in the NFL against the pass allowing 169.3 yards a game. “That’s why it’s huge for us as a team and as a defense to keep our composure and refocus. They are going to make plays and they are going to make runs.

“At times we have lost our composure, whether guys get enamored with [Steelers receiver Antonio Brown] or with [running back] Le’Veon [Bell], and they are focused on them more than what they are supposed to be. That’s just us as humans. You want to do more with the game on the line.”

Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Brown with 9 seconds remaining for a 31-27 Steelers victory that knocked the Ravens out of the playoff picture in 2016. He threw for 506 yards last season in Pittsburgh’s 39-38 win over the Ravens in December.

There is something about their passing game the Ravens haven’t figured out. For one, the Ravens can’t get a consistent pass rush. A lot of teams have one vertical threat on the outside but the Steelers have Brown and second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. They can play outside or in the slot pending the matchups.

The Ravens have also had problems covering Bell and Pittsburgh tight ends one-on-one. Smith-Schuster (27 receptions for 356 yards) has more catches than Brown (24 catches for 210 yards) this season.

“JuJu, its crazy that he’s kind of putting up some better numbers than AB,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “He’s definitely a guy you have to be alert of. Last year, he had a really good year as a rookie, and I think he turned some heads. Even though you have to be aware of AB, you also have to be aware of JuJu. He’s been a guy that’s been given a lot of catches, a lot of yards per game, so we definitely have to be alert for him.”

At least the Ravens don’t have to worry about Bell. He’s still holding out in a contract dispute. Running back James Conner has played well in Bell’s absence, but he doesn’t have the patience, explosiveness or big-play ability of Bell, especially in the passing game.

The Ravens will sleep better knowing Bell won’t play, but they also have more confidence in themselves. They have learned from past mistakes, like allowing cornerback Brandon Carr to go one-on-one with Brown on the strong side of the field.

“We’ve gotten to the point where no matter what they do formation-wise, or no matter where their players are at on the field, we have an answer for it now,” Weddle said. “Going through those tough instances in the fourth quarter, well, we’ve learned from it and expanded that call or a different call.

“As tough as it is to swallow those losses, it’s helped us to prepare for these moments now going forward. When you have a stud receiver, you can’t always shade to that side. Because when you do, you have another guy running down the sideline for a touchdown. You have to mix [and] match, you have to blitz them at times, you can’t just let him sit back and get going.”

The Ravens made significant improvement from the Game 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, when quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 265 yards and four touchdowns. The Ravens play more pass coverage now and use their hands to disrupt patterns.

During the offseason, new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and head coach John Harbaugh dissected all the coverages and added more wrinkles. The Ravens run many more defensive fronts compared to a year ago and, according to Weddle, they’ve only used a smart portion of them so far.

Red-zone defense is a part of almost every practice instead of just going over it Thursdays and lightly sometimes Fridays.

“Honestly, there are times in my career where going into a game there would be some formation where I would think this doesn’t look good, or why do we want to do to this?” Weddle said. “Now I feel 100 percent confident that we have the tools where we have an answer to any formation.”

The Ravens also have an effective offense now. Quarterback Joe Flacco has legitimate weapons. They need to improve in the running game, which could be helpful in Sunday’s game to slow Pittsburgh’s offense.

The Ravens desperately need a win over Pittsburgh. It would be a signal they have arrived and are serious contenders. It’s difficult to win at Heinz Field, and this team has had some gut-wrenching, close losses to the Steelers the past three seasons.

A victory would be a great confidence-booster.

And Weddle could finally talk a little trash to Big Ben.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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