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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 03 January 2015 by Luke Jones

PITTSBURGH — One of the best rivalries in the NFL is renewed Saturday night as the Ravens meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round.

After much discussion about the weather being a major factor in these teams’ first postseason meeting since the 2010 season, heavy rain subsided a few hours prior to kickoff and the updated Weather.com forecast calls for only a small chance of precipitation throughout the night with temperatures in the mid-40s and winds up to 12 miles per hour. The improved conditions likely aren’t good news for the Ravens as they had hoped heavy rain would hinder a Pittsburgh passing attack that ranked second in the NFL during the regular season.

The condition of the playing surface itself will remain a question, however, as the natural grass at Heinz Field typically doesn’t hold up late in the season. Tarps were covering the length of the field until they were removed a little less than three hours before kickoff.

Of course, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell, who was officially ruled out Friday with a hyperextended knee suffered against Cincinnati in Week 17. Not only will Pittsburgh be without the league’s second-leading rusher, but Bell’s ability as a receiver and in pass protection will be missed against a relentless Baltimore pass rush.

On the flip side, the Ravens are hurting on the offensive line with Eugene Monroe (ankle) out and starting right tackle Rick Wagner (foot) already on injured reserve. Rookie free agent James Hurst will face the difficult task of handling the left tackle position and trying to slow veteran rush specialist James Harrison. Fellow rookie John Urschel will start at right guard with four-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda shifting to right tackle.

There were no real surprises on the inactives list for Baltimore as defensive end Chris Canty (ankle/thigh) will start after missing the regular-season finale while rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro is active for the second straight week. Second-year linebacker Arthur Brown was placed on injured reserve Friday with a hamstring injury.

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm) is inactive despite being listed as probable and participating fully in practices all week, but Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu (knee) is active after missing the final two games of the regular season.

The return of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will provide a major boost to the league’s fourth-ranked run defense as the Steelers figure to use a committee approach of rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as well as newly-signed veteran Ben Tate. Rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan was ruled out on Friday after suffering a foot injury in the regular-season finale.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens will have some extra support at Heinz Field as his younger brother Jim will be in attendance after accepting the head job at the University of Michigan earlier this week.

The Ravens will be playing Pittsburgh for the fourth time in their playoff history as they have dropped all three of the previous postseason games played at Heinz Field. Baltimore is 17-21 against the Steelers in the all-time regular-season history and owns a 7-12 regular-season record in Pittsburgh. In the Harbaugh era, 11 of the 15 games — including the postseason — played between these teams have been decided by one score.

The referee for Sunday night’s wild-card game will be Clete Blakeman.

The Ravens will be wearing white jerseys with black pants for Saturday night’s game while Pittsburgh dons its black tops with yellow pants.

Below are the inactives for Saturday night:

BALTIMORE
OT Eugene Monroe
DT Timmy Jernigan
TE Phillip Supernaw
DT Casey Walker
DT Terrence Cody
DE Steven Means
CB Chris Greenwood

PITTSBURGH
QB Landry Jones
RB Le’Veon Bell
WR Lance Moore
OL Chris Hubbard
TE Michael Palmer
DE Clifton Geathers
CB Ike Taylor

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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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Steelers running back Bell to miss Saturday’s wild-card game

Posted on 02 January 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens and Steelers were making final preparations for Saturday’s wild-card meeting, Pittsburgh made it official Friday that Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell will not play.

The Steelers ruled out the second-year back after he had missed practices all week due to a hyperextended knee suffered in the regular-season finale against Cincinnati. Bell did not suffer any structural damage, but his status had remained in doubt all week for the first round of the playoffs.

In two games against the Ravens this year, Bell rushed for only 79 yards on 21 carries, but the second-year back caught 10 passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Even though Bell finished second in the NFL in rushing yards, it’s his ability as a receiver and pass blocker that the Steelers will really miss against a ferocious pass rush.

“The game plan will change based on how their game plan changes — if it does,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Bell’s status earlier this week. “At this point in the season, you have to look at everything that they do and take into account if he plays [and] if he doesn’t play, what might they go to. I can’t sit here with a crystal ball and tell you what they’re going to do, but what we have to do is be ready for whatever they decide to do. Game plan-wise, we just have to adapt to whatever they decide to do.”

Bell’s absence means Pittsburgh will be forced to lean on the trio of Josh Harris, rookie Dri Archer, and newly-signed veteran Ben Tate. Tate is now playing with his third different team this year while Harris and Archer combined to carry 19 times for 56 yards during the regular season.

 

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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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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 11 September 2014 by Luke Jones

All eyes will be on Baltimore as the Ravens welcome the hated Pittsburgh Steelers to M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night.

However, few outside Baltimore and Pittsburgh are thinking about the game itself as the Ravens continue to deal with the fallout stemming from the release of the second Ray Rice video and the subsequent decision to terminate the running back’s contract Monday afternoon. This meeting is normally regarded as one of the best rivalries in the NFL, but you’d have to think long and hard to find another example of a Ravens-Steelers game with so little buzz surrounding the actual play on the field.

But that doesn’t make it any less important for the Ravens as they try to avoid what would be a very disheartening 0-2 start in the AFC North. According to NFL Network research, no team in NFL history has ever made the postseason after dropping two straight divisional home games to begin a season, making Thursday’s game as close to a “must-win” affair as you can have in Week 2.

Head coach John Harbaugh has earned a reputation for rallying his teams to play at their best when dealing with adversity, but the Ravens have never dealt with a situation quite like this, making you wonder how mentally and emotionally fresh they’ll be on what was already a short week.

Thursday marks the 37th time these AFC North rivals have met in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 20-16 advantage. The Ravens are 9-9 against the Steelers in Baltimore and have won two of the last three played at M&T Bank Stadium.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to even their record at 1-1 and bounce back from their disappointing season-opening loss to Cincinnati …

1. Running back Bernard Pierce will lead the Ravens in carries and pick up 70 yards with a touchdown. It was easy for Harbaugh to send a message to Pierce after his fumble late in the second quarter last week when he was still working under the assumption that Rice would be returning for Week 3, but the Ravens now need Pierce to be a large part of what they do with their running game all season. Veteran Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will get their opportunities — the former was very good in pass protection last week in addition to running for 70 yards — as Harbaugh says he will go with the hot hand moving forward, but Pierce still gives the Ravens the best chance to have a successful running game in the short-term future and is a good fit on paper for Gary Kubiak’s one-cut zone stretch scheme.

2. Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will take turns exploiting the tackles on the Pittsburgh line to record a combined three sacks. Suggs may have provided more of an impact than the completely-invisible Dumervil did against the Bengals, but neither were able to disrupt the timing of Andy Dalton, something that can’t be repeated against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. As always, the pass rush needs to be careful not to simply chase Roethlisberger from the pocket where he’s at his best improvising down the field, but more help needs to be provided to a secondary that should have cornerback Lardarius Webb available. Steelers tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert are weak links on the offensive line, giving Suggs and Dumervil no excuse not to feast on Thursday night.

3. Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will pick up where Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard left off, registering 120 total yards and a touchdown while giving the Ravens problems as a receiver out of the backfield. Though much bigger than the shifty Bernard, Bell caught 45 passes for 399 yards out of the backfield in 13 games as a rookie and added six receptions for 88 yards against the Browns in Week 1. The Ravens struggled against screens and underneath throws while protecting against the deep ball last week, so Pittsburgh will test them again with those types of plays until Baltimore shows it can stop them. And with Pittsburgh being another team that likes using the no-huddle offense, you do wonder if a bigger back like Bell will start to wear down an old front seven as the game progresses.

4. The Ravens will use more up-tempo offense and quarterback Joe Flacco will go to tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels early in this one. Just as the Steelers undoubtedly saw how the Ravens defense struggled to defend screens and other underneath throws, Kubiak had to take notice of the Browns’ success using the no-huddle attack against Pittsburgh in the second half and should use that to his advantage in hopes of getting Flacco going early. You’d never know it from the final numbers when he targeted Pitta and Daniels a combined 20 times, but Flacco threw to the tight-end duo only once before the final drive of the first half. Ravens wide receivers cannot have a case of the drops like they did last week, but look for Flacco to throw more short stuff to Pitta, Daniels, and Kyle Juszczyk to get into an earlier rhythm before taking some longer shots down the field.

5. It will be close with Pittsburgh as it always is, but the home-field edge gives the Ravens just enough to pull out a 24-21 win that they really need. Only four of the 14 Ravens-Steelers games in the Harbaugh era have been decided by more than three points and the last five meetings have all been determined by three or fewer. The Ravens have dealt with plenty of distractions away from the field this week, but they know they cannot afford to fall to 0-2 with both games against AFC North foes. The best teams are able to rise to the occasion and come together under trying circumstances like these while lesser teams fold and begin looking for excuses. You get the sense that Thursday night will tell us a lot about who the Ravens are as a football team in 2014 — good or bad.

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Thursday night

Posted on 28 November 2013 by Luke Jones

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Though each team carries an underwhelming 5-6 record, playoff ramifications are high on Thanksgiving as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 36th time in the regular season but the first time ever on a Thursday night.

A win pushes the Ravens closer toward the No. 6 spot in the AFC while a loss all but ends their season as they would likely need to win their remaining four games to have any chance of advancing to the postseason for the sixth straight time under head coach John Harbaugh.

The Ravens are healthier than they’ve been at any point this season as defensive end Chris Canty was the only starter on the injury report — listed as probable — while the Steelers will be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon and are unlikely to have outside linebacker and sack leader LaMarr Woodley, who is doubtful with a calf injury. However, it appears Baltimore will likely need to wait at least one more week for the return of tight end Dennis Pitta.

It’s time to go on the record as the Steelers look for their first season sweep over Baltimore since the 2008 season and hold the 20-15 edge all-time in the regular season while also owning a 3-0 advantage in the postseason. The Ravens are 8-9 against Pittsburgh in Baltimore and have lost two of the last three played at M&T Bank Stadium. The last four meetings and nine of the last 11 regular-season contests between the Ravens and Steelers have each been decided by just three points.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to move to the .500 mark for the first time since mid-October …

1. Tyrod Taylor will see a few offensive snaps but will not line up under center as the wildcat discussion will calm considerably. Should the Ravens continue using the gimmick offense after Joe Flacco said Tuesday that he didn’t expect to see it much moving forward, the doubts of whether the quarterback and the coaching staff are on the same page will only get stronger. The truth is the wildcat attack isn’t going to be the difference-maker the Ravens need as opponents see it more and more, but there’s no reason Taylor can’t be used lining up as a wide receiver or even at running back on occasion. If the Steelers were forced to even spend as much as 20 or 30 minutes in a short week preparing for the possibility of the Ravens using the novelty offense, I suppose that’s an advantage for Baltimore, but it won’t dramatically alter the outcome of the game.

2. Neither team will run for more than 80 yards as Le’Veon Bell won’t duplicate his strong Week 7 performance. Pittsburgh used its own version of the wildcat in the first meeting of the season, which led to a season-high 141 yards on the ground for the league’s 30th-ranked running game. Meanwhile, the Ravens haven’t run effectively against anyone except Miami in Week 5 and the Bears two weeks ago, so it’s difficult to expect them to do much against even the Steelers’ 23rd-ranked run defense. After years of these rivals thriving on dominating defense and the running game, it’s clear that the 2013 versions of the Ravens and Steelers simply do not fit that profile. You’re much more likely to see 300-yard performances from either of the starting quarterbacks than to see a 100-yard day from either Bell or Ray Rice as the defenses will control the line of scrimmage.

3. Justin Tucker will miss his first field goal since Week 2. Anyone recall when the second-year kicker missed two tries in the home opener against Cleveland and was outperformed by former Raven Billy Cundiff? So much for any concerns of a sophomore slump as Tucker hasn’t missed a kick since, earning AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November and also the weekly honor after booting four field goals in last Sunday’s win over the Jets. Tucker’s streak of 22 consecutive field goals is tied for the second-longest streak in franchise history — Matt Stover’s 36 straight is the record mark — and he has been the Ravens’ most reliable player this season. Now, after heaping all that praise on the unflappable 24-year-old, Thursday seems like the time when he’ll finally miss a kick while booting two others successfully.

4. Flacco will throw for 230 yards and a touchdown, but the Ravens’ red-zone struggles will carry over from last week. What was lost through all the comments Flacco made about the wildcat and his disdain for lining up at the wide receiver position was the fact that the sixth-year quarterback played his best game since before the bye week this past Sunday. The Ravens will have a tougher time against Pittsburgh’s 10th-ranked pass defense than they did against the Jets’ vulnerable secondary, but the most encouraging development from their Week 12 win was the vertical connections to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Flacco will need to make big plays with his arm to best Ben Roethlisberger, and he will have a strong performance as he typically does in big games. However, the Ravens’ lack of consistent weapons will once again hurt in the red zone despite a touchdown to Smith.

5. The same movie will play out once again as the Ravens come up short in a big game against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in a 17-13 final. Baltimore has the advantage at home playing on a short week, but the Ravens have always failed against Pittsburgh when the stakes are high, and Thursday certainly qualifies in that regard. The Ravens are arguably playing their best football of the year after winning two of their last three games, but Pittsburgh has been even better in winning five of seven and Roethlisberger has outplayed Flacco over the last six weeks of the season. The Ravens hold the edge defensively over Pittsburgh’s aging defense, but the Steelers offense is markedly better than Baltimore’s, which will be the difference in this one. It will be a close game as it typically is between these AFC North rivals, but a late drive culminating with a Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Antonio Brown will be the difference as the Ravens’ playoff hopes are dealt a fatal blow.

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