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After years of lagging behind the Steelers’ stars, the Ravens offense finally has an answer

The thrust of the Ravens’ offensive “revolution” might have changed since coach John Harbaugh first promised its arrival this offseason — who saw Lamar Jackson passing 43 times in a game? — but its achievements cannot be disputed.

Through four games, the Ravens lead the NFL in offense (482.5 yards per game), are sixth in passing offense (276.8), first in rushing offense (205.8) and tied for first in scoring offense (33.8). They have a play-extending quarterback in Jackson, a versatile running back in Mark Ingram II and an explosive wide receiver in Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, not to mention an elite tight end corps headlined by Mark Andrews.

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They have, in many ways, what has long been in place in Pittsburgh, which on Sunday will host the Ravens (2-2) in an important, if muted, AFC North clash. The Steelers (1-3) have had a top-seven offense every year since 2013, and even that season, when they finished 20th in yards per game, the Ravens were 29th. Only twice in coach John Harbaugh’s Baltimore career have the Ravens had a statistically superior offense: his first season, in 2008, and his Super Bowl season, in 2012.

September turned the Ravens’ world upside down, with a surging offense and a sputtering defense. The tumult was worse in Pittsburgh, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 and the Steelers didn’t win a game until the last day of the month.

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But as a rivalry game flush with new faces starts to turn the page in the series’ storied history — Joe Flacco, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are gone, and Roethlisberger is 37, after all — it’s worth considering whether the Ravens have given themselves the offensive firepower for a Steelers-esque run.

“We can’t peak too early,” Jackson said last week when asked about the team’s young stars. “We’re just building now.”

Pro Bowls don’t tell the whole story, but they do give a sense of the Ravens’ uphill battle for the past decade-plus. Since Flacco and Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008, the offense has had just four individual seasons by skill position players rewarded with Pro Bowl honors: Ray Rice in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and Justin Forsett in 2014. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones was invited in 2012, but as a kick returner.

With Roethlisberger orchestrating the offense, a parade of Steelers around him has made it to Hawaii (or Florida, or Arizona, depending on the year). Since 2011, Pittsburgh has had at least one wide receiver, running back or tight end make the Pro Bowl every season. They’ve had two representatives five times. Last year, they sent three.

From tight end (Heath Miller) to wide receiver (Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster) to running back (Le’Veon Bell, James Conner), the Steelers have regularly frustrated Ravens defenders and fans alike. Why has Pittsburgh gotten to hoard all the AFC North’s top playmakers?

"We just hit on some of those guys. I'm not going to make more out of it than what it is," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in 2016. "We do our due diligence just like everybody else does their due diligence. I am not going to pretend like our processes are better. We are just trying to get the very best players as consistently as we can, like everybody else. We have been fortunate in that area."

It’s appropriate that the Ravens’ answer to Antonio Brown is a cousin of his. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, a first-round draft pick who leads all rookie receivers in catches (18) and receiving yards (304), grew up watching the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. He said Wednesday that he didn’t root for Pittsburgh; he rooted for his cousin. Now he poses for the Steelers the same kind of game-planning trouble Antonio Brown did for Baltimore.

Marquise Brown’s first-year running mate, Miles Boykin, has struggled somewhat after a standout preseason, but his two touchdown catches are tied for second most among rookies. And his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame is an ideal complement to the 5-foot-9 Brown’s.

“They’re young players that are only going to continue to ascend in this league,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “The biggest thing for a young receiver is it’s such a different style of football than they’re used to in college. There is much more physical coverage, for the most part, so that’s a learning curve there. But they have the work ethic, the mental toughness and the attitude to become extremely productive players in this league.”

The Ravens reportedly entertained the idea this offseason of adding Bell, who sat out last season after refusing to sign the Steelers’ franchise tag, before signing former New Orleans Saints star Mark Ingram II. The price was right: While Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the New York Jets, Ingram’s deal was for three years and $15 million.

So far, Ingram has outperformed both Bell and Bell’s Steelers successor, Conner, ranking second in the NFL in yards per carry (6.0) among qualified running backs. Gus Edwards gives the Ravens a second running back rated among the top 15 at the position by Pro Football Focus; only the New England Patriots have the same claim.

And at tight end, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle have emerged with Andrews as security blankets in the Ravens’ passing game and dependable blockers in their running game. It’s an offensive group that was already worthy of envy. With the rise of the other new and young talent around them, they might soon have company.

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“Chemistry means a lot,” Andrews said Thursday. “I didn’t really quite understand what that meant until college, and now in the NFL, it means a ton more. So the more reps you get with a quarterback, the better off you’re going to be. And these guys are in there all the time, so they’re getting better and they’re getting more chemistry, which is awesome.”

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