OWINGS MILLS, Md. — They’ve heard the same criticisms offered in Baltimore about a vaunted Ravens defense that’s taken a plunge to 27th overall in 2012, but the Pittsburgh defense continues to strike fear into opponents.
Ranked first in the league in yards allowed and seventh in scoring defense, the Steelers currently have seven starters over the age of 30 on the defensive side of the football. Seven-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu has played in two games all season and doesn’t appear likely to suit up on Sunday night.
But the Ravens are fully aware of the challenge facing them as they try to win their third straight regular-season game at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out, but the Baltimore offense knows he has nothing to do with a defense that continues to excel despite a few more gray hairs and nagging injuries.
“They are a physical bunch. They haven’t changed a lot on defense, even with their stars out [like] Polamalu,” running back Ray Rice said. “They are still coming after you. They are going to hit you hard.”
The Steelers’ 16 sacks are an underwhelming total — tied for 22nd in the league with the Ravens — but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still brings pressure that will give quarterbacks fits.
Because of the various blitz packages the Steelers tend to dial up, it will be interesting to see if the Ravens try to use their no-huddle offense to keep Pittsburgh in its base 3-4 defense as much as possible. Of course, Baltimore has struggled to score points on the road, averaging only 17.5 points per game.
Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have combined for only four sacks this season, but the Ravens aren’t taking the duo lightly as they’ve wreaked havoc on quarterback Joe Flacco in the past.
“They’ve done what they always do. They pressure you, first of all,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve got very good pass rushers. They do a good job of trying to get their guys in one-on-one situations. Their pressure package is predicated on creating the matchups they want in the pass rush. And then they’ve got play-makers who catch and run and make plays.”
In recent seasons, Pittsburgh has been vulnerable in the secondary, but cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have played at a high level this season as the Steelers have held opponents to just 171.1 passing yards per game. Making the feat even more impressive has been the secondary’s ability to limit passers such as Eli Manning despite the long-term absence of Polamalu.
The Ravens will likely use a similar approach to the one used in Cleveland two weeks ago as they used more balance in committing to the running game. The Steelers rank sixth in the league against the run, but Kansas City was surprisingly successful with the ground game in Week 10, rushing for 142 yards on 35 carries.
“We have to take what they are going to give us, but I think running the ball is something that we have to do well against them,” Rice said. “I’ve always said it: You don’t pick up and say, ‘We are going to run the ball at the Pittsburgh Steelers.’ They take a lot of pride in that. We’ll be smart when we run it, but we will try to execute at a high level and get some great runs.”
Ultimately, the Ravens’ chances of winning will come down to the play of quarterback Joe Flacco, who has orchestrated last-second drives to win the last two regular-season meetings in Pittsburgh. The fifth-year quarterback is more than familiar with the surroundings at Heinz Field as a former Pittsburgh Panther — before transferring to Delaware — and now has six road games (two in the postseason) under his belt against the Steelers.
Flacco wouldn’t characterize Pittsburgh’s stadium as a home away from home, but past experiences — good and bad — and recent triumphs have shaped him to be a more confident quarterback at Heinz Field. Last season, Flacco was 28-for-47 for 300 yards and threw a game-winning touchdown to Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining in a 23-20 final. A year earlier, the Baltimore signal-caller was 24-for-37 for 256 yards and tossed another last-minute 18-yard score to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds left in a 17-14 win.
“I don’t know if that adds to it, but I’m sure it probably does, somewhere inside of all of us,” Flacco said. “We’ve played there a good amount. We’ve really gone and played pretty well there, so we should be happy and confident when we take the field, and I think that we are. I’m sure that does add to a little bit to why we are confident there.”
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