With several Ravens starters set to return vs. Steelers, excuses aren't an option

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about preparing his team during the bye week to face the Steelers on Sunday.

The Ravens are running out of excuses and time.

When they host Pittsburgh (4-3) at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, the Ravens (3-4) will have a chance to at least tie the Steelers for first place in the AFC North, and maybe that will halt some of the negativity surrounding this team.


But if they lose, it will open them up to more criticism. The Ravens are expected to have nearly all of their starters healthy and back on the field, including wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., left tackle Ronnie Stanley, guard Marshal Yanda, linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley and return specialist Devin Hester Sr.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he expects to see No. 7 under center for Pittsburgh.

The return of these players won't significantly improve the Ravens, but the absence of Smith, Yanda and Stanley has hurt an offense that ranked No. 25 in the NFL entering Monday, averaging 246.1 passing yards (18th) and 86.3 rushing yards (26th) per game.


Smith can draw double teams, which should open up the intermediate passing game, and Stanley is much better on the left side than either of his replacements, Alex Lewis or James Hurt. Behind an ailing line, Joe Flacco has been sacked 15 times this season and hurried countless others.

A year ago, the Ravens pointed to their high number of injuries as the biggest reason for finishing 5-11. Some of those same players have gone down this season, but the Ravens have no one to blame but themselves for not getting rid of several in the offseason.

Now it's time to play again. The Ravens were fortunate their first three games because they were healthy and played the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. They have now lost four in a row.

The fate of this team will be determined in the next nine games, when the Ravens face the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals twice as well as the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. There is no room to wiggle. The Ravens haven't been to the playoffs two of the past three years and have had five offensive coordinators in five seasons, and time is running out.

Looking elsewhere: It wouldn't be a Steelers week unless there was uncertainty about the status of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for Sunday's game.

I won't call him a "drama king" like CBS commentator Bart Scott, but there is always suspense with Roethlisberger. There have been conflicting reports about him having recovered from surgery on his left meniscus and his readiness for the Ravens.

His availability is not intriguing anymore. I am more interested in how Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will blow the game. He panics when playing the Ravens, whether it's trying to trip returner Jacoby Jones along the sideline or failing to have quarterback Michael Vick throw downfield against one of the NFL's worst secondaries last season.

There is something about the Ravens that brings out the worst in Tomlin, and something about the Steelers that brings out the best in the Ravens.

Perriman's no T. Smith: There are often comparisons of former Maryland and Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, now with the San Francisco 49ers, to Ravens second-year receiver Breshad Perriman.

To me, the only things they have in common are speed and stiffness. Neither is great at running routes, and they are basically speed guys who can get vertical and run slant patterns.

Through eight weeks, the AFC North, which has been one of the top divisions in the sport, has the same number of winning teams (Pittsburgh) as it does winless ones (Cleveland).

I'd still like to see Perriman be more aggressive and get some yards after the catch. He seems to shy away from contact like his rookie teammate, running back Kenneth Dixon. Both might be gun-shy after suffering injuries earlier this season.

Young and old reign: It was good to see two rising, young quarterbacks play against each other Sunday, as Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to a 29-23 win over Carson Wentz and the Eagles. Both will be around for a while.


But before the torch is passed, two elder statesmen went at it as Atlanta's Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 33-32 win over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Between the two, they threw some nice, long touch passes and also some darts inside the red zone for touchdowns.

Of course, there was also New England's Tom Brady. He took some punishment Sunday but still lit up the Bills for 315 passing yards and 41 points in a Patriots victory.

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Not good looks: Wearing a pink suit and green hat during his postgame news conference Sunday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton reminded me of some character who would appear with a leprechaun on a box of Lucky Charms cereal. He might need to undergo concussion protocol for that wardrobe malfunction.

The only thing uglier was Oakland's 23 penalties for 200 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Raiders still won, 30-24 in overtime.

Give Flacco a break: Flacco isn't having a good season, and he acknowledges it. But these emails I keep getting about benching Flacco for backup Ryan Mallett are ridiculous.

Apparently, those folks didn't see Mallett perform in the offseason minicamp and training camp practices, or during his two years in Houston with the Texans.

Just about every player in the NFL struggles at some point, so Flacco deserves more time. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that right shoulder is more injured than we suspect.

Fighting words: Did anyone catch a little tension between Bart Scott, a former Raven, and Steve Smith Sr. during Sunday's "NFL Today"?

Scott said Smith needed to prepare better before talking about some statistics, a comment Smith didn't appear to like.

It would have been interesting if those two butted heads onstage; both are "alpha males," and neither will back down. The show seemed to end on a good note after some urging from their colleagues.

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