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Upset proves Ravens-Steelers rivalry not going anywhere

Posted on 27 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After receiving a season’s worth of coal, the Ravens handed some to Pittsburgh two days after Christmas to put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

The 20-17 victory over their arch rival doesn’t wipe away the disappointment of a lost year, but a season sweep and potentially knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs?

That sounds pretty sweet to the Ravens, especially when few gave them a chance against an offense that had scored 30 or more points in six straight games. And as much as they tried to downplay it during the week, the Ravens wanted nothing more than to prevent their AFC North counterpart from clinching a playoff berth at M&T Bank Stadium.

“If we can’t get in there, then you can’t get in, either,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “Exactly that’s how we want it.”

We know misery loves company, but Ravens fans have heard for years about “tainted” victories over the Steelers on several occasions when Ben Roethlisberger was out of the lineup. Pittsburgh fans taunted them when graybeard backup Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a December victory in Baltimore in 2012 — even if the Ravens still went on to win the Super Bowl two months later.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh was facing a Ravens team without quarterback Joe Flacco and 19 other players who were officially out for the season. And the Steelers lost to Baltimore’s fourth starting quarterback of the season as Ryan Mallett will now go down in rivalry lore, especially if the New York Jets win at Buffalo next week to officially knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens are still 5-10 and hurt their draft position with Sunday’s win, but simply holding a lead for four quarters — they had led at the conclusion of just 14 of 58 periods of play this season entering Week 16 — was a pleasant diversion in a frustrating season. The fact that it came against the Steelers made it that much sweeter.

“The lead is important. I think we had maybe 10 points on turnovers,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who directed the Ravens to the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in the 20-year history of the franchise. “We didn’t give up any points on turnovers. That’s winning football. That’s the way we want to play, and to me, that’s a blueprint for us going forward. Now we have to try to replicate that blueprint.”

What this win really means for the future is anyone’s guess. As impressive as Mallett’s performance was less than two weeks after signing a contract, the Ravens hope the Week 17 finale in Cincinnati will be the last time he’ll have to play if Flacco is healthy for the start of the 2016 season.

You hope that young players like Buck Allen and Za’Darius Smith learned valuable lessons from the upset victory, but many players involved in Sunday’s game are unlikely to be in the picture moving forward.

If nothing else, it was a fun three-hour diversion from a nightmare season. This time, the Ravens were able to create a nightmare for someone else.

“It definitely feels special today,” wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. “Keeping them out of the playoffs, and just being able to sweep them this year. They didn’t get a win this year. It’s always good when you beat Pittsburgh.”

Sunday’s upset reminded us that Ravens-Steelers isn’t going anywhere. It’s true that the rivalry has lost some luster in recent years, but how could it not with future Hall of Fame players like Ray Lewis and Hines Ward and Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu no longer in the picture?

As division rivals playing at least twice a year, the Ravens and Steelers have proven over and over again that anything can happen, regardless of what the numbers tell you before they meet. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six games between these teams, but 12 of the 16 regular-season meetings in the Harbaugh era have been decided by three or fewer points.

With the Ravens long out of playoff contention, more Steelers fans than normal made their way into the stadium on Sunday, but that only challenged the home fans to be louder than they’d been all year, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of high-stakes meetings of the past.

It may no longer be the hottest matchup in the NFL, but Baltimore-Pittsburgh has become a legacy rivalry that will endure those rare times when one or both teams are down. The organizations are two of the best in the NFL, making a win over the other special no matter what their records might be in a given season.

The Ravens hope that Sunday’s win will be a springboard into better fortunes in 2016.

“To sweep Pittsburgh is a very valuable thing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a very meaningful thing. And this team accomplished that. When you have failure in life, sometimes woven into the failure are great successes and great wins.”

And through that surprising Week 16 success, the Ravens could take joy in handing the Steelers some failure that could doom their own season.

Petty or not, that’s what a great rivalry is all about.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 26 December 2015 by Luke Jones

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Recently adding to Harvey Dent’s sentiment expressed in “The Dark Knight” movie was injured Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who told the team’s official website that watching this season is like “being in Bane’s prison with your back broken, watching the city in turmoil.”

That dawn — or an escape — doesn’t figure to come Sunday as the 4-10 Ravens welcome their hated AFC North rivals to town. Not only do the Pittsburgh Steelers have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss, but their fans could take over M&T Bank Stadium in a manner we haven’t seen in Baltimore in a long time. Based on the higher-than-normal volume of visiting fans in town over the last two weeks, that scenario appears likely for the final home game of the 2015 season.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he couldn’t care less about the possibility of punching a ticket to the playoffs in Baltimore, but you know there’s little Pittsburgh would like more than to further embarrass their rivals when they’re down.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 40th in their regular-season history with Pittsburgh holding a 21-18 advantage, but 13 of the 18 games — including the postseason — in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession, which includes the Ravens’ 23-20 overtime win at Heinz Field in Week 4. The Ravens are 10-9 against the Steelers in Baltimore.

Here’s what to expects as the Ravens try to win just their third home game of 2015 …

(Editor’s note: A report early Sunday morning indicated that Ryan Mallett will start against the Steelers, allowing the reader to skip to the No. 2 prediction.)

1. Jimmy Clausen will start and play respectably against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Harbaugh and Marc Trestman have left the door open for Ryan Mallett to make his first start, but it’s difficult imagining him truly being ready with less than two weeks to learn the system and it makes little sense throwing him into such a difficult setting. Meanwhile, Clausen has played well enough in his first two starts to make you think he can make some plays against Pittsburgh’s 31st-ranked pass defense. The Ravens offense lacks the pieces to score many points, but Clausen’s developing chemistry with Kamar Aiken will allow them to at least move the chains on Sunday.

2. Jimmy Smith will intercept a pass, but Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown and post over 100 receiving yards. The fifth-year cornerback being listed as probable is good news, but it’s not as though the pass defense has thrived with Smith, who has disappointed coming off last year’s Lisfranc injury. The Ravens have one interception in the last three months — Lardarius Webb picked off Blake Bortles on Nov. 15 — and Smith will intercept Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. However, he’ll be no match for Brown as he eclipses the century mark in receiving yards for the fifth time in seven games. There are just too many weapons for Pittsburgh and not enough talent in the Ravens secondary.

3. Buck Allen will redeem himself from Week 15 with 115 yards from scrimmage. I wasn’t a fan of Harbaugh’s treatment of the rookie running back after his first-quarter fumble, but the coach indicated that Allen’s bench won’t carry over. The Steelers remain stout against the run, but their linebackers are poor in pass coverage, which should open up opportunities for Allen to catch passes out of the backfield. With Pittsburgh expected to score plenty of points and the Ravens likely playing from behind, Clausen will find Allen as a nice safety valve out of the backfield to help move the chains and the 2015 fourth-round pick will put the memory of the last two weeks behind him with a strong day.

4. Ben Roethlisberger will throw for over 300 yards for the sixth time in the last seven games. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the Pittsburgh quarterback was considered much more of a game manager, but the only thing to consistently stop him in 2015 has been injuries as Roethlisberger continues to put up big numbers. The Ravens will try to exploit Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, but the pass rush just isn’t good enough and the veteran signal-caller will be more than willing to roll out to his right and wait for his receivers to get open down the field. It will be a far cry from Week 4 when the Ravens were able to bottle up Mike Vick for most of the evening.

5. The Ravens will keep it close in the first half before Pittsburgh pulls away in a 31-13 final. Baltimore was competitive early against Seattle and Kansas City, but the resiliency and talent just aren’t there to overcome a turnover, a big penalty, or a gut-wrenching play by the opposition at this point. The Steelers have won three straight and have reached the 30-point mark in their last six contests, making them arguably the biggest AFC threat to New England should they reach the postseason. It’s easy to say it’s a Ravens-Steelers game and anything could happen, but do we really even recognize this Baltimore team at this point? Considering what’s at stake for Pittsburgh, the Ravens winning on Sunday would be one of the biggest upsets in the 20-year history of the franchise.

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Will Graves gives update on Big Ben and the Steelers

Posted on 11 November 2015 by WNST Staff








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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 30 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be two teams moving in opposite directions, but a single injury altered that thinking on Sunday.

A knee injury to Ben Roethlisberger not only puts the Steelers (2-1) in a holding pattern for at least the next few weeks while trying to survive with backup Michael Vick at the helm, but it gives the winless Ravens hope that they can go to Heinz Field on a short week and potentially steal their first victory of 2015. Of course, it won’t be easy for Baltimore with starting tight end Crockett Gillmore, starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, starting defensive end Chris Canty, and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman all ruled out for Thursday night.

Searching for answers and knowing only three NFL teams have rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the NFL playoffs since 1990, the Ravens’ biggest enemy at this point might be themselves as a season full of high expectations has instead started in nightmare fashion for John Harbaugh’s team. It’s officially uncharted territory for a team that had never started 0-3 in franchise history and has made the playoffs in six of the last seven years.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Pittsburgh for the 39th time in their regular-season history as they own a 17-21 mark. The teams split a pair of games at Heinz Field last season, but Baltimore prevailed 30-17 over the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game last January.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 5-2 in Thursday night primetime games under Harbaugh …

1. Pittsburgh will control the tempo of the game by handing the ball to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams a combined 35 times. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn’t going to allow Vick to take many chances, leaving plenty of opportunities for these running backs. The Ravens rank fourth in the league allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but the Steelers will spread out the defense to create just enough room for Bell and Williams to keep Vick in manageable down-and-distance situations.

2. Maxx Williams will catch his first touchdown and provide the Ravens with another threat behind Steve Smith. Considering how many issues the Pittsburgh defense has had with tight ends so far, Gillmore’s absence couldn’t have come at a worse time, but Williams will find room against linebackers who are poor in pass coverage. The bigger question will be how he and fellow rookie Nick Boyle fare as blockers with the Ravens desperately needing to get their struggling running game in order.

3. Brandon Williams will pick up his first sack of the season and create problems in the Pittsburgh backfield. There have been few bright spots on the Ravens’ 26th-ranked scoring defense, but Williams has been a force and the unit’s best player. With Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey out, the third-year nose tackle should dominate Cody Wallace by collecting his first quarterback takedown as well as a few other tackles for a loss to force more Pittsburgh runs to the perimeter on Thursday night.

4. Antonio Brown will still collect 100 yards receiving and a touchdown without Roethlisberger throwing to him. The Steelers likely won’t have Brown running as many downfield routes, but they will use bubble screens and other ways to get the ball to the playmaker in open space to put pressure on tacklers. It will be interesting to see if Dean Pees elects to have Jimmy Smith shadow Brown, but the Ravens better be ready to give him help against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.

5. Vick will manage the game effectively while the Ravens lack the “it” factor to do what it takes in a 24-16 loss. I fully expect a Harbaugh-coached team to compete in this one and I’m tempted to pick the Ravens to win with Roethlisberger out, but last week was the game in which they needed to pull themselves off the mat and they still couldn’t do it. Many have cited Baltimore’s 5-1 record against Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger hasn’t played, but two active defensive players — Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan — took part in that last win in 2012, a game Brown also missed. The defense will be a little better than the last two weeks and the offense will find ways to move the ball, but the recurring theme of not being good enough in the fourth quarter will cost Baltimore again in a close one.

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Jimmy Smith trying to shake off disappointing start to 2015

Posted on 29 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked how he shakes off one of the most difficult games of his NFL career, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith demonstrated by literally shaking his arms and shoulders while smiling.

Even when dealing with an 0-3 start, it’s important to have a sense of humor — and a short memory — when competing in an NFL secondary. That’s not to say that Smith didn’t take his poor performance hard on Sunday, declining to speak to the media after giving up the game-winning touchdown pass to four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green in the 28-24 loss to Cincinnati.

“I took the loss as a loss,” said Smith, who apologized Monday for being “too emotional” to talk after the defeat. “It wasn’t so much that I was just so down on myself, it was just a loss. I didn’t play as well as I wanted to, so all of that affected it.”

Signed in the offseason to a four-year, $41 million contract extension through 2019, Smith appeared ready to pick up where he left off last season, returning a Peyton Manning interception for the Ravens’ only touchdown in a 19-13 season-opening loss to Denver. However, the 27-year-old cornerback has struggled since then, allowing a long touchdown to Amari Cooper in the Week 2 loss at Oakland before being torched by Green in Week 3.

In three games, Smith has been thrown at 28 times and has allowed 18 receptions for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a stark contrast from a year ago when the 2011 first-round pick was targeted just 39 times in eight games and allowed 20 receptions for 163 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. A Lisfranc injury that required season-ending surgery last November short-circuited a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign and forced Smith to spend much of the offseason rehabbing, but he was mostly a full participant in training camp and played in two preseason games.

The early-season woes have led many to wonder if his left foot is still an issue 11 months after the injury. A problem to the foot area can be debilitating at a position requiring backpedaling and such frequent changes in direction, but Smith wouldn’t comment on the possibility of any lingering effects.

“People come back from injuries; they play,” said Smith, who’s missed 17 games due to injuries in his young career. “Until this season is over, I’ll never talk about my foot.”

Identified as one of the leaders of a defense trying to fill the void of the injured Terrell Suggs, Smith said he isn’t lacking confidence despite allowing Green to make seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown when they were matched on Sunday. He cited his preparation and film study as the biggest reasons why his recent play won’t shake his confidence moving forward.

Of course, the proof lies on the field where he’s appeared hesitant to engage in press coverage such as when he was beaten badly by Cooper on the 2015 first-round pick’s touchdown in Week 2. His early third-quarter interception of Andy Dalton on Sunday was a flash of what he’s capable of doing, but Smith hasn’t carried the same swagger on the field that he did a year ago when he had appeared to finally arrive as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC.

The struggles have been across the board in the secondary as the Ravens currently rank 29th in pass defense. Miscommunication, technique flaws, and poor tackling have plagued Baltimore in each of the last two weeks, but Smith views these issues as correctable with better preparation as well as “effort and will” to bring down ball-carriers.

“There are times when we’re playing at a high level; it’s just we’ve got to be way more consistent,” Smith said. “Even though they’re huge plays, it’s a minor technique that we’re missing or that we’re not completing. So, it’s not even the calls; it’s things we have to fix and clean up, and we’ll get that done.”

Trying to rebound from the first 0-3 start in team history to save their season, the Ravens need Smith playing at his highest level in order to do so. Other than the passing combination of quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith, there may not be a more important player to the Ravens’ success than Smith when he’s playing at his best.

For what it’s worth, teammates and coaches haven’t lost faith in him despite the last two weeks.

“Jimmy is one of our best corners,” linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “He’s one of the good players on our team — great guy, great teammate. Some days you give up plays; some days you make plays. That’s just the National Football League, and I wouldn’t want to take any other corner but him.”

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Gillmore, Perriman sit out light practice on Monday

Posted on 29 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Needing to regroup quickly after a third straight loss to begin the 2015 season, the Ravens returned to practice with a trip to Pittsburgh rapidly approaching on Thursday night.

Conducting little more than a walk-through practice on Monday evening, Baltimore was without tight end Crockett Gillmore (calf), wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee), and defensive end Chris Canty (calf). After making three catches for 40 yards in the first two quarters of Sunday’s 28-24 loss to Cincinnati, Gillmore did not play an offensive snap in the second half, leaving rookies Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle to pick up the slack at the tight end position.

It remains unclear whether Gillmore will be able to play on Thursday, but his absence would spell trouble for a passing game struggling to find any consistent production beyond the 36-year-old Steve Smith. Williams and Boyle combined to make five catches for 63 yards against the Bengals.

“The biggest thing those guys have to do is just go in and play within themselves,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “They can’t try to do too much. They just have to catch the ball, run block — do the simple things. When you’re a young player — even when you’re a veteran player — it’s all about doing the fundamental, simple things right. If they can concentrate on those little things, then they’ll do just fine.”

Perriman’s lack of participation on Monday indicated he was still feeling the effects of tweaking his knee during a pre-game workout on Sunday, the latest frustration in a long recovery from a sprained knee suffered on the first day of training camp in late July. The 2015 first-round pick had practiced on a limited basis late last week, but his status against the Steelers was still up in the air before he pulled up on his knee Sunday morning.

Now it appears all but certain that Perriman won’t play against Pittsburgh. Even before the setback, the rookie wideout didn’t do any real work with his starting quarterback during his limited time on the practice field last Thursday and Friday.

“I honestly didn’t get to do too much with him last week,” Flacco said. “I know he was out here going through a little bit of stuff, but I have no idea how he feels and what’s actually going on. I didn’t get to throw to him. It’s not something that I’m going to worry about until I know for sure that he’s coming back.

“Just tell me when he’s coming back. Other than that, don’t really bother me with it, because it’s not something we can worry about at this point.”

In positive news, left tackle Eugene Monroe took part in his first practice since suffering a concussion on the opening drive of the 2015 season opener in Denver. Listed as a limited participant in the light practice, Monroe has been in the league-mandated concussion protocol, but it remains unclear whether he’s been cleared to return to live action.

Meanwhile, the Steelers officially ruled out Ben Roethlisberger for Thursday’s game after he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament and bone bruise in his left knee in Week 3. The Pittsburgh quarterback is expected to miss at least four weeks while veteran Michael Vick takes the reins of one of the best offenses in the NFL.

Steelers linebackers James Harrison (thumb) and Ryan Shazier (shoulder) also sat out the first practice of the abbreviated week.

Below is Monday’s full injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Chris Canty (calf), TE Crockett Gillmore (calf), WR Breshad Perriman (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Eugene Monroe (concussion)

OUT: QB Ben Roethlisberger (knee)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Cortez Allen (knee), LB James Harrison (thumb), DT Daniel McCullers (knee), LB Ryan Shazier (shoulder), TE Matt Spaeth (hand)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Here we go again.

Regarded by many as the best rivalry in the NFL, the Ravens and Steelers meet for the third time this season and the fourth time ever in the postseason at Heinz Field on Saturday night. Baltimore and Pittsburgh split a pair of 20-point finals during the regular season with each team winning on its home field.

The weather figures to be a significant storyline as the forecast continues to call for a 90 to 100 percent chance of rain with temperatures in the mid-40s and winds that could reach 20 miles per hour.

Both teams will be dealing with significant injuries as the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell while the Ravens are missing left tackle Eugene Monroe for the second straight game, meaning rookie free agent James Hurst will start in his place. Pittsburgh will rely on rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as well as newly-signed veteran Ben Tate to pick up the slack in Bell’s absence.

In more positive news, the Ravens will welcome back five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from suspension, which will more than offset the loss of rookie Timmy Jernigan (foot) in Week 17.

Of course, both team will lean heavily on Super Bowl winning quarterbacks to lead the way as Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger both know what it takes to make a meaningful run in January. Roethlisberger owns a 10-4 postseason record while Flacco owns a 9-4 mark in the playoffs.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the fourth time in postseason history with Pittsburgh holding a 3-0 mark with all previous playoff games being played at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh also leads the all-time regular-season series 21-17, but 13 of the 16 games — including the postseason — played between the Ravens and Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to beat Pittsburgh for the first time ever in the postseason …

1. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will each collect a sack, but a sloppy field will neutralize some of their ability to wreak havoc. Bell’s absence will put plenty of attention on the Pittsburgh passing game, which will have the Ravens’ rush licking its chops over the possibility of being able to tee off on Roethlisberger. However, the Steelers offensive line is much better than it’s been in several years and the wet surface at Heinz Field will slow the rush for both teams. Suggs and Dumervil often try to jump snap counts to utilize their speed off the edge, but hard counts and a chewed-up field will make things easier for tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert.

2. With the Ravens focused on slowing Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown, rookie Martavis Bryant will beat Rashaan Melvin for a long touchdown. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows Brown is the Steelers’ most dangerous weapon, which will make it even more important to focus on him in coverage with Bell unavailable. The Ravens will shade safety help to where Brown lines up as much as possible, but that could leave Melvin matched up against the 6-foot-4 Bryant. Melvin has played well since being thrown into the mix last month, but this will be his first NFL game against an elite quarterback and he’ll bite on a double move by Bryant for a score.

3. Justin Forsett will be the only running back from either team to find modest success on Saturday night with 70 yards and a touchdown. Considering few have run with any success against the Ravens this season, the Steelers won’t be able to do much without Bell, who will also be missed as a receiver and in pass protection. However, Baltimore has struggled to run consistently in recent weeks and will face the league’s sixth-ranked run defense. The Ravens will run wide and use counters to get the Steelers’ front seven moving laterally — something they also want to do with play-action plays to neutralize the pass rush — and Forsett will do enough to keep the Pittsburgh defense on its toes with the rain falling.

4. Both Flacco and Roethlisberger will throw more than 35 times despite a forecast conducive to running the ball. In the old days of this rivalry, Saturday’s forecast would have meant both sides grinding it out with the rushing attack, but the run defenses are too stout and the secondaries too vulnerable for the game not to be put in the hands of these franchise quarterbacks. The Ravens will mix in more runs than the Steelers, but Roethlisberger has better weapons to throw to in the passing game. As Harbaugh pointed out earlier in the week, both Flacco and Roethlisberger are used to playing in poor weather and the rain won’t prevent them from making some plays through the air.

5. The weather will contribute to another low-scoring tight one, but the Steelers will find a way to prevail in a 20-17 final. The loss of Bell is a major blow to Pittsburgh and could be enough to tip the scale in Baltimore’s favor, but the Ravens haven’t risen to the occasion against good teams, sporting only one win all season against a team that finished with a winning record. Many are pointing to 2012 as enough reason for the Ravens to be able to make a run, but even in the midst of losing four of their last five to close that regular season, there was the Week 16 demolition of the New York Giants that flashed what the offense would be able to do in the postseason. Despite a strong fourth quarter to beat Cleveland in Week 17, the Ravens have failed to inspire on offense for almost a month now, making it too difficult to believe the unit suddenly clicks in January with a banged-up offensive line. And after an admirable run against pedestrian passing games in December, a patchwork secondary isn’t going to hold up as well against the NFL’s second-ranked passing attack. Harbaugh’s group will give a one-dimensional Pittsburgh offense everything it can handle, but Roethlisberger has played the best football of his career this season and will do just enough at home to get by the Ravens yet again in the postseason.

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Ravens preparing for sloppy conditions at Heinz Field

Posted on 01 January 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After going through an entire season of mild weather, the Ravens are preparing for ugly conditions in Pittsburgh for Saturday night’s playoff meeting with the Steelers.

Forecasts continue to call for a 100 percent chance of rain with winds that could reach 20 miles per hour on Saturday night. It may create a fitting scene for what many consider a throwback rivalry, but which team has the advantage?

With the Steelers possessing the NFL’s second-ranked passing game and Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell’s status up in the air, the Ravens probably don’t mind a rainy forecast at Heinz Field. Head coach John Harbaugh sees drawbacks for each side of the ball if conditions are poor, but he doesn’t envision Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger being dramatically impacted.

“Some days you feel like it’s an advantage to the defense, because maybe [the offense] can’t throw it quite as well,” Harbaugh said. “Other times you think it’s an advantage to the offense, because they know where they’re cutting and braking and things like that. I think both these quarterbacks are good bad-weather quarterbacks. That’s why they’re both successful in the AFC North.”

Despite showing inconsistency on the ground in recent weeks, the Ravens rank eighth in rush offense while Pittsburgh is only 16th and could be without Bell, who rushed for 1,361 yards in his second NFL season. Both teams have questionable depth at the position behind their starters as the Ravens lost rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro for the season and the Steelers had to sign veteran Ben Tate earlier this week.

Coming off the best regular season of his career, Justin Forsett sees nothing wrong with the wet conditions being predicted for Saturday. His impressive ability to change direction and low center of gravity are conducive traits to running effectively in wet conditions.

“As a running back, you love it,” Forsett said. “Usually, it means that you’re running the ball, but you never know. But I’m excited for it, either way.”

Beyond how much the weather itself might impact both teams’ game plans, the field conditions will be under scrutiny as the natural grass at Heinz Field holds up poorly late in the season. The Ravens haven’t played in substantially wet conditions in Pittsburgh since a 38-7 blowout loss suffered in a Monday night game in 2007.

In recent years, many have clamored for Pittsburgh to install an artificial surface at Heinz Field, which also serves as the home of University of Pittsburgh football and high school football playoff games.

“It’s terrible, man. They need to go ahead and put some turf up there or something,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “But you know that’s the case. Apparently the field gets a lot of use, so that’s good for them, but it’s terrible for [the players] playing this late. I’m sure they’ll do a great job prepping it, but if we use our fundamentals, the field shouldn’t matter.”

Versatile Yanda

With right tackle Rick Wagner out for the season and left tackle Eugene Monroe’s status for Saturday in doubt, the Ravens may be forced to use Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda at right tackle for a second straight start.

Of course, Yanda is no stranger to the position after playing the entire 2010 season there, but it’s a testament to the four-time Pro Bowl selection’s preparation and ability that he barely missed a beat in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. It’s another example of the 2007 third-round pick quietly establishing himself as one of the best players in franchise history.

“I told Marshal, ‘You’ll be fine. You could probably play quarterback.'” said offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak of the position change. “That’s the way he is. He’s an amazing player. His attention to detail, his commitment to the football team and what he does is as good as I’ve ever been around. So, [I’m] not surprised at all.”

Yanda’s versatility has allowed the Ravens to insert rookie John Urschel at right guard while rookie James Hurst has played left tackle in place of Monroe.

Taking the late-season change in stride, Yanda denied any ability or interest in lining up under center, but Kubiak has repeatedly said he’s as good as any offensive lineman he’s ever coached. The standout lineman’s focus remains on trying to beat Pittsburgh in the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

“I appreciate it, that’s for sure,” Yanda said. “Right now, you’re worried about playing well, practicing, and getting ready for the Steelers. There will be time to reflect back on the season after the season is over.”

Thursday’s injury report

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Arthur Brown (thigh), DT Timmy Jernigan (foot/ankle), T Eugene Monroe (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Chris Canty (thigh/ankle), TE Owen Daniels (non-injury)

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Le’Veon Bell (knee), LB James Harrison (illness), QB Landry Jones (illness)
FULL PARTICIPATION: T Mike Adams (illness), DT Steve McLendon (shoulder), TE Heath Miller (non-injury), TE Michael Palmer (groin), S Troy Polamalu (knee), QB Ben Roethlisberger (non-injury), CB Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm)

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Slowing Antonio Brown critical to Ravens continuing playoff run

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As many focus on the status of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell for Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens know an ability to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown would go a long way in trying to advance to the divisional round.

The 5-foot-10 Brown continues to defy the odds as a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL with 129 receptions and 1,698 receiving yards while catching a career-high 13 touchdown passes in 2014. And he presents the biggest challenge to a Ravens pass defense that’s played better in recent weeks but still ranked 24th in pass defense during the regular season.

“A lot of guys when they [discuss] who the best receiver in the game is, they want to look at the big, tall, dominant guys like Calvin [Johnson] and Dez [Bryant],” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who labeled Brown as an elite receiver a few years ago when he was still playing in the shadow of former Steeler Mike Wallace. “With Antonio, he can do it all. He’s not the biggest guy, so a lot of guys might not want to say he’s the best receiver in the game because of his size. He can do a lot of things on that field to say, ‘Man, why not be the best receiver in the game?’”

After Jimmy Smith shadowed Brown in holding him to a quiet seven catches for 90 yards in a 26-6 win over the Steelers in Week 2, the Ravens faced Brown’s wrath in the regular-season rematch in Pittsburgh — a week after their top cornerback was lost for the season — in which he caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown in a 43-23 final on Nov. 2. It remains to be seen whether Webb will draw the exclusive assignment of following Brown, but the Ravens haven’t done any mirroring of receivers since Smith was injured, instead keeping each starting cornerback on the same sides of the field.

Baltimore will obviously try to roll safety help to Brown’s side as much as possible, but Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes moving the speedy receiver all over the field. In addition to being targeted 25 times on passes 20 or more yards down field in the regular season, Brown also lines up in the slot at least a handful of times per game, which would create a significant problem if the Ravens are to use Matt Elam in certain nickel situations.

If a defense shows its hand too drastically in trying to bracket Brown, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been afraid to go elsewhere in throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards in 2014. But Brown remains his most dangerous weapon with his 615 yards after the catch rank third in the NFL.

“He’s all over. They can screen him, they can stack,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “But the thing of it is I think Ben also sees what the coverage is, and all of a sudden, you’re rolling it. He’s not afraid to go to [Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton]. [Tight end Heath Miller] has always been a security blanket for him, and the guy has always made a clutch catch in clutch times.”

A Ravens secondary that’s been ravaged by injuries throughout the season is feeling better about itself heading into the postseason, but Roethlisberger and Brown present a far more imposing quarterback-receiver duo than anything seen over the final quarter of the season. Baltimore’s ability to slow the Steelers offense will once again come down to the pass rush, but Roethlisberger has shown an ability to get rid of the ball quickly in averaging just 2.5 seconds in the pocket before throwing, which Pro Football Focus ranked sixth in the NFL.

The faces have changed in the secondary since the Week 9 blowout in Pittsburgh as Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown were both cut and current starting cornerback Rashaan Melvin wasn’t even on the team at the time. Pees and several members of the secondary have credited continuity in recent weeks as a reason for the improvement.

“The last couple games we’ve been playing good ball all over the field,” Melvin said. “That confidence going into the playoffs is going to help us a lot. We just want to go in and play the best ball we can play as a second and as a defense in general and to go in there and do our assignments.”

Even if the Ravens are able to limit Brown’s opportunities as a receiver, they’ll need to watch out for him as a punt returner as Cincinnati found out last week when he returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. He ranked eighth in the NFL in punt return average this season and tied for sixth in return attempts, showing he isn’t conservative as a returner despite being valued as one of the best wide receivers in football.

His expansive skill set not only makes him one of the best receivers in the NFL but one of the best players overall. And the Ravens will have their hands full in trying to slow him enough to be able to continue playing beyond Saturday night.

“The same thing that makes him dangerous as a receiver makes him dangerous as a returner,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “He’s very aggressive. He’s highly talented. He has a competitive spirit about him. He wants to make plays, and he has done it. He’s a very good player. We have to be at our best.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 01 November 2014 by Luke Jones

No strangers to meeting in the national spotlight, the Ravens and Steelers will meet in prime time for the 13th time in the series history on Sunday night.

Baltimore will be looking for its first regular-season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2011 while the Steelers aim for their third straight win overall. Both teams enter the weekend right on the heels of the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

Sunday marks the 38th time these teams have met in the regular season with the Steelers owning a 20-17 advantage. The Ravens are 7-11 in regular-season games played in Pittsburgh, but they’ve won three of the last four played at Heinz Field.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 6-3 in a very competitive AFC North …

1. Steelers wideout Antonio Brown will catch a long touchdown in the first quarter as a reshuffled secondary tries to get its bearings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to be creative with coverages as top cornerback Jimmy Smith is out. The timing couldn’t be much worse as Brown has been arguably the best receiver in the NFL this season and is tied for the league lead with 10 catches of 25 or more yards. Pees will likely entrust Lardarius Webb to cover Brown, which is a daunting task for a cornerback working his way back to top form after a lengthy absence due to a back injury. A miscommunication will allow Brown to break free for a long score as the Ravens defense tries to get in sync.

2. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will score a touchdown for a second straight game and lead the Ravens in rushing. Baltimore ran for 157 yards in the first meeting against the Steelers in Week 2, but it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the running game really wore down a tired Pittsburgh front. This defense is softer than the typical Steelers unit and ranks 11th against the run, and the physicality of Taliaferro will be a strong change of pace from shifty starter Justin Forsett. With concerns in their own secondary, the Ravens will want to control the clock and limit the Steelers’ opportunities for possessions and Taliaferro will get plenty of carries in the second half with Bernard Pierce now third on the depth chart.

3. The Baltimore defense will limit Le’Veon Bell’s production on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will lead his team in receptions. The Ravens are allowing only 3.7 yards per carry and rank seventh in the NFL in run defense as they’ve slowed opposing running backs all season. However, the Steelers are finding more and more ways to get the ball to the 244-pound back as a receiver as he’s second on the team in receiving yards. With the Ravens trying to account for not having Smith, they’re going to be content with giving cushion and allowing throws underneath to prevent the big play. Pittsburgh will use this to its advantage by getting the ball to Bell in the passing game.

4. Terrell Suggs will collect two sacks to pick up 100 for his career. There’s no downplaying how crucial it will be for the Ravens to generate pressure as they’ll be depending on the pair of Dominique Franks — who was on the street at this time a month ago — and Chykie Brown — who spent the last two weeks on the inactive list — at the cornerback position opposite Webb. Much like he’ll mix and disguise coverages in the back end, Pees will move Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee around to confuse an improving offensive line and harass Roethlisberger. Suggs needs two sacks for 100 in his career, and nothing would be more fitting than doing it against the quarterback he’s sacked more than any other rusher has.

5. Pittsburgh will win a 26-23 game that goes back and forth for much of the night. Admittedly, when trying to break down Ravens-Steelers, it’s probably best to put aside the numbers and simply remember that 11 of the 15 total meetings in the John Harbaugh era — counting the postseason — have been decided by four or fewer points. However, the loss of Smith hurts more than any player on the current roster beyond quarterback Joe Flacco and the Steelers offense is playing at a high level at the wrong time for Baltimore. Both offenses will move the ball effectively, but the Steelers will do a little too much damage in the passing game for the Ravens to overcome.

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