Saturday, January 03, 2015

Ravens vs. Steelers preview

By Scott Brown and Jamison Hensley |
January 1, 2014

Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers avoids a tackle by Dominique Franks #32 of the Baltimore Ravens during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field on November 2, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Antonio Brown of the Steelers avoids a tackle by Dominique Franks of the Baltimore Ravens during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

When: 8:15 p.m. ET, Saturday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: NBC 

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger probably framed it best earlier this week when asked about the renewal of the NFL’s fiercest rivalry. 

“This is probably what the NFL wanted more than anything,” Roethlisberger said, “to see these two AFC North teams go at it.” 

The Ravens and Steelers will go at it for a third time this season and the ante has been upped after each team won on its home field by 20 points. The victor advances to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs while vanquished has to go an entire offseason chewing on a loss to its chief rival. 

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game. 

Brown: Jamison, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said no one has made more "splash plays" in the recent history of this great rivalry than Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. What does his return from a four-game suspension do for the Ravens' defense and how much of a spark in general does that give the Ravens? 

Hensley: The Ravens are banking on a big spark. Ngata said repeatedly that he owes the Ravens for his mistake, and coach John Harbaugh feels that Ngata wants to make a statement in these playoffs. A motivated Ngata is a dangerous one. Before his four-game suspension, Ngata was having his best season in recent memory. He was a game-wrecker once again, single-handedly making two goal-line stands. Ngata produced two sacks, forced two fumbles, batted down seven passes and even picked off a couple of throws. In two meetings with the Steelers, he had a sack, three quarterback hurries and an interception. There are just no guarantees that Ngata returns at this same level. There is a big question mark over those numbers after he violated the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. And, even though Ngata looks to be in good shape, no one knows how much rust he’ll need to shake off. He’s never missed more than two consecutive games in his career, much less four straight. The Ravens are a better team with Ngata. How much better depends on Ngata’s level of determination. 

Le'Veon Bell is injured, and Roethlisberger threw for six touchdowns against the Ravens in the last meeting. Do you expect the Steelers to attack the Ravens by throwing it or is that too obvious? 

Brown: I never underestimate the ability of coaches to outthink themselves but I don’t see any scenario in which the Steelers don’t throw it early and often against the Ravens. Heck, that may have been the case even if Bell were healthy. The Ravens are allowing just 88.3 rushing yards per game and they get Ngata back from that four-game suspension. The Steelers, and Tomlin in particular, have a ton of respect for Ngata and they know his presence will only make it tougher to run against the Ravens. What the Steelers have to do is run the ball enough to slow down the Ravens' pass rush. It also would help if they run the ball effectively to keep Roethlisberger out of one obvious passing situation after another. 

The Ravens have not played particularly well in December while the Steelers went 4-0 in the final month of the regular season. How much credence do you put in a team entering the playoffs hot or can a team get hot once the playoffs start? 

Hensley: I was always a big believer in momentum. Teams need to finish strong to spark a legitimate Super Bowl run. That all changed in 2012. The Ravens lost four of their last five regular-season games and then reeled off four straight wins in the playoffs to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Last season, the Seattle Seahawks lost two of their last four regular-season games before going on a tear in the playoffs. So, recent history shows that December is not always a strong predictor of postseason success. The Ravens certainly hope that’s the case again this year. They’ve played only one complete quarter in their past three games. Their offense has been in a funk, the defense is vulnerable in the secondary and the special teams continue to make boneheaded penalties. But the Ravens' mantra since clinching a playoff berth is this becomes a second season. If I had a dollar for every time a Ravens coach or player said “everybody is 0-0,” I wouldn’t have to pay for a Primanti Brothers sandwich all weekend. We’ll see if the Ravens can turn a tepid December into a hot January again. 

The Steelers gave up the sixth-fewest rushing yards this season (an average of 100.3 per game) but they allow 4.4 yards per carry (which ranks 25th in the NFL). How would you rate the Steelers' run defense and is Pittsburgh vulnerable there? 

Brown: It probably hasn’t gotten enough attention as far as an improved run defense playing a significant role in the Steelers' winning eight of their final 10 regular-season games. The Steelers aren’t stuffing the run the way they regularly did from 2005-10 when they played in three Super Bowls and won two of them. But they aren’t getting gashed either like earlier in the season, though they were shaky at times last Sunday night as Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill rushed for 71 yards on 11 carries in the first half. Everything in Dick LeBeau’s defense starts with stopping the run and forcing teams into obvious passing situations. That will certainly be the case Saturday night as the Steelers want to put quarterback Joe Flacco behind chain and take their chances. 

I’m not sure the Steelers would have run the ball well even had Bell been healthy. Throwing it should be a different story. I wanted to get an update from you on the Ravens' secondary. Is that the place to attack the Ravens' safeties, and have the young safeties made progress? 

Hensley: It's no secret that the Ravens are most vulnerable in the secondary. It's been a bad combination of thin talent and an unlucky run of injuries. This defense has gone through seven starting cornerbacks and four starting safeties. The Ravens allowed 248.7 yards passing per game, the most in the franchise’s 19-year history. Of all the injuries suffered -- there are five cornerbacks on injured reserve -- the one that hurt the most was the season-ending foot injury to Jimmy Smith, the team’s top cornerback. It was in the Ravens' first game without Smith that they allowed six touchdown passes to Roethlisberger. The Ravens' secondary has played much better lately. The Ravens have given up 506 yards passing over the past three games, the seventh fewest in the league. Of course, that came against three young quarterbacks: Blake BortlesCase Keenum and Connor Shaw. When the Ravens go against the better quarterbacks -- such as Roethlisberger -- they're going to need their pass rush to help mask the holes in the secondary. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combined for 29 sacks, the most of any pass-rush duo in the NFL this season. 

The Steelers and Ravens have uncharacteristically blown out each other this season. Do you expect a closer game for Round 3? 

Brown: It has to be a close game, right? Too much in the history of the great rivalry goes against either team winning by 20 points, which happened in the regular season when the Ravens and Steelers each flexed their muscles on their home turf. The Steelers have won all three times they have faced the Ravens in the playoffs. All three of those games were in Pittsburgh and the Steelers' margin of victory was an average of 11 points. That may be offset by the Ravens' 6-1 record in the wild-card round of the playoffs, which is the best in the NFL. The Ravens have not played particularly well in December while the Steelers appear to be peaking at the right time. But take away Bell away from the Steelers -- and I will be surprised, though not shocked, if the Pro Bowl running back plays Saturday night -- and add Ngata to the Ravens' defense and that's a significant tipping of the scales. It won't surprise me in the slightest if the latest Ravens-Steelers slugfest is decided by a field goal at the end of the game. 

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