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Ravens-Chargers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 29 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Playing their final game of November, the Ravens welcome the San Diego Chargers to M&T Bank Stadium for a meeting with critical AFC playoff ramifications.

Both teams enter Week 13 with a 7-4 record, but the Chargers face a tall order in trying to become the first West Coast team ever to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Of course, it’s no secret that West Coast teams flying east for 1 p.m. kickoffs generally don’t fare well as the Chargers were blanked 37-0 at Miami to begin the month of November.

Who will win on Sunday?

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In addition to simply keeping pace in the very competitive AFC North where all teams in a division are three games above .500 for the first time in NFL history, the Ravens desperately need to improve a 3-4 conference record that can often be crucial in determining playoff spots at the end of the season. Of course, that record will take care of itself if Baltimore simply continues to win down the stretch.

Sunday marks the 10th time these teams have ever met with the Ravens holding a 5-4 all-time advantage and a 2-0 record in Baltimore. The Chargers will be playing in Baltimore for the first time since the 2006 season when Steve McNair threw a last-second touchdown to Todd Heap to give the Ravens a dramatic victory.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 8-4 in their quest to return to the postseason …

1. Brandon Williams will have another big game as San Diego struggles to run the ball between the tackles. The second-year nose tackle probably hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves in his first season as a starter and played his best game of the season in the win over New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Chargers have sent three centers to injured reserve this year and are now relying on rookie Chris Watt at the position. The third-round product from Notre Dame played well in his first start against St. Louis last week, but Williams and Haloti Ngata will make it a long day for a line that won’t be able to open running lanes for running back Ryan Mathews. San Diego will run for less than 85 yards on the day.

2. Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd will catch a touchdown pass matched up against one of the Ravens’ undersized cornerbacks. The Baltimore secondary gave up a slew of passing yards in New Orleans, but the unit was able to make plays when needed as was the case with safety Will Hill’s interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The 6-foot-5 Floyd presents a matchup problem without the more physical Jimmy Smith on the field. The 33-year-old has stayed healthy this year and is having one of the better seasons of his career with over 600 receiving yards. He’ll catch a touchdown in the red zone as the Chargers take advantage of his size advantage.

3. Justin Forsett will go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. San Diego’s defense is its biggest strength, but the Chargers are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, ranking 21st in the NFL. With the way the offensive line has blocked and Forsett has been able to find seams in the defense, how can you pick against the Baltimore running game at this point? The 29-year-old needs 97 yards on the ground for 1,000 on the season and he’ll reach that mark in the fourth quarter. The Ravens will establish the run early to set up play-action opportunities down the field against a strong secondary and the league’s sixth-ranked pass defense.

4. San Diego left tackle King Dunlap will not be able to stop Terrell Suggs, who will pick up two sacks on the day. It hasn’t been a poor season for the veteran linebacker, but you know he’d love to narrow the gap between his six sacks and Elvis Dumervil’s team-leading 12 1/2 in 2014. Suggs will have a great opportunity against Dunlap, who has struggled in pass protection and is much more effective as a run blocker. After crossing the 100-sack threshold for his career last week, Suggs will add two more to his total as the Chargers focus on giving right tackle D.J. Fluker more help in blocking Dumervil. The inability to run the football will leave San Diego with plenty of difficulty protecting the pocket all day.

5. Philip Rivers will throw for more yards than Joe Flacco, but the running game will control the tempo in a 26-14 win for the Ravens. The Chargers quarterback will play admirably, but the lack of a running game will have him running for his life far too often. In contrast, the Ravens’ ability to run the ball will limit Flacco’s opportunities, but the seventh-year quarterback will be efficient and cautious against a talented secondary. The Ravens will control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and have allowed just 10.6 points per home game this season. If this game were being played in San Diego, the result might be different, but the Ravens will be in command from the start on their way to a relatively comfortable win.

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McPhee, Suggs probable; Campanaro questionable for Chargers game

Posted on 28 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Returning to the practice field after the Thanksgiving holiday, the Ravens look to be in excellent shape from a health standpoint as they made final preparations for Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro is the only Baltimore player listed as much as questionable for Week 13.

All players on the 53-man roster were present and working during the portion of practice open to reporters on Friday morning. Campanaro made his return to the practice field this week after a month-long absence due to a hamstring injury, but the Ravens training staff is bringing him along very slowly in fear of a mishap, making it unlikely that he’ll play on Sunday.

“He’s coming along. It’s a process with a hamstring,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t really push that thing so much. What usually happens with a hamstring is they’re pretty conservative and then all of a sudden they come back and tell you he’s ready to go. He did practice this week. It wasn’t all the time as fast as we want it to be, because we don’t want a setback. I imagine I’ll find out Sunday if he’s ready to go or not and if he is, we’ll see. That’s really the best we can do right now.”

Linebackers Terrell Suggs (foot) and Pernell McPhee (shoulder) are listed as probable after both were full participants on Friday. Reserve offensive lineman Jah Reid has also been a full participant all week after missing the last two games due to a broken hand.

With the disadvantage of a short week after playing a Monday night game in New Orleans, the Ravens sporting such a clean injury report is encouraging as they play the 7-4 Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 5-4 margin and have a 2-0 advantage playing in Baltimore.

The Chargers officially ruled out nose tackle Ryan Carrethers (elbow) and listed linebacker Andrew Gachkar (knee) as doubtful for Sunday’s game. Starting running back Ryan Mathews (shoulder) is probable.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Walt Anderson.

According to Weather.com, Sunday’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-50s and winds up to eight miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
QUESTIONABLE: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh)
PROBABLE: LB Pernell McPhee (shoulder), OL Jah Reid (hand), LB Terrell Suggs (foot)

SAN DIEGO
OUT: NT Ryan Carrethers (elbow)
DOUBTFUL: LB Andrew Gachkar (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: G Ryan Miller (groin), DT Tenny Palepoi (non-injury)
PROBABLE: S Jahleel Addae (concussion), RB Ryan Mathews (shoulder), WR Eddie Royal (toe)

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Campanaro, Suggs practice for Ravens on Thanksgiving

Posted on 27 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens reporting early to work on Thanksgiving, linebacker Terrell Suggs returned to the practice field after sitting out with a foot injury.

The 12th-year linebacker was the only player to miss Wednesday’s workout as rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (broken hand) have returned to the practice field this week. Campanaro hasn’t played since injuring his hamstring in the Oct. 26 loss at Cincinnati, but it’s possible the Ravens will continue to ease him back into action this week with thoughts of a return against Miami on Dec. 7.

Campanaro was once again a limited participant on Thursday while Reid was a full participant for the second straight day. The latter is practicing with a protective club on his right hand after he injured it a few days before the Week 10 win over Tennessee.

The Ravens reported to their Owings Mills facility at 7:15 a.m. for an early meeting and were practicing earlier than usual as head coach John Harbaugh planned to give them most of the afternoon off to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. The Ravens brass were not taking a day off, however, as owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, and general manager Ozzie Newsome were all watching practice.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), LB Pernell McPhee (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: G Jah Reid (hand), LB Terrell Suggs (foot)

SAN DIEGO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: NT Ryan Carrethers (elbow), LB Andrew Gachkar (knee), DT Tenny Palepoi (non-injury)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Jahleel Addae (concussion), LB Dwight Freeney (non-injury), RB Ryan Mathews (shoulder), WR Eddie Royal (toe)

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McPhee continues doing dirty work for Ravens defense

Posted on 25 November 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens had a number of huge performances in the 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints, but one of their better ones came from a defensive player who didn’t even make a tackle Monday night.

While Elvis Dumervil (two), Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley combined for four sacks, it was situational rush specialist Pernell McPhee who brought the most pressure against Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Playing 28 defensive snaps, McPhee produced four hurries and three quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

Regularly credited for doing the dirty work up front while Dumervil and Suggs produce higher sack totals, McPhee has been effective as either an edge rusher spelling one of the veterans or as an interior lineman in obvious passing situations. The 280-pounder’s combination of strength and quickness has made him arguably the Ravens’ best inside rusher since Trevor Pryce, so it only made sense that he’d exploit a suspect interior part of the New Orleans offensive line.

McPhee doesn’t produce as many sacks because it’s generally easier for quarterbacks to recognize pressure and get rid of the ball when it’s right in front of them — he primarily lines up inside in sub packages — instead of dealing with rushers coming off the edge, but the 2011 fifth-round pick effectively collapses the pocket and is a key cog in helping to run stunts for others to pick up sacks. Playing fewer snaps than Suggs or Dumervil this season, McPhee leads all Ravens defensive players with 14 quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries, per PFF.

The Ravens knew they had something with McPhee in his rookie season when he collected six sacks as a situational rusher, but an array of nagging injuries limited his performance over the last two seasons. McPhee has stayed healthy in 2014 and has proven himself as a productive rusher in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ rotation.

Keeping McPhee on a pitch count with his playing time appears to have maximized his production while also allowing Suggs and Dumervil to remain fresh, but it will be interesting to see how much interest the Mississippi State product draws this offseason when he becomes a free agent for the first time. In that regard, McPhee collecting only four sacks to this point in the year might be a blessing when trying to quantify his value on the open market.

Despite a suspect secondary that’s dealt with a number of injuries, the Ravens rank fifth in points allowed and 15th in total defense because of the strong play of their front seven with McPhee playing a vital part.

Even if it’s gone unnoticed for large stretches of time like it did Monday night.

 

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Ravens built for strong finish in tight AFC playoff picture

Posted on 25 November 2014 by Luke Jones

NEW ORLEANS — The Ravens spent much of the spring and summer insisting they weren’t going to entertain thoughts of last season when they missed the playoffs for the first time under head coach John Harbaugh.

But linebacker Terrell Suggs wanted his teammates to remember exactly what happened a year ago as they returned from their bye this past week with a crucial road game at New Orleans staring them in the eye. It’s safe to say the Ravens responded to the veteran’s message with a crucial 34-27 win over the Saints to improve to 7-4, keeping pace in a combative and tight AFC North.

“Down this stretch, this is important,” said Suggs, who pressured quarterback Drew Brees into throwing an interception returned for a touchdown by safety Will Hill to give Baltimore the lead for good in the third quarter. “Last year, this is where we kind of lost ourselves, we kind of lost our way. Unfortunately, we were left out of the playoffs on the outside looking in. We don’t want to feel like that this year.”

Over the years, the Ravens have taken pride in saying they’re built for December and January, but the label didn’t fit last season as they couldn’t run the ball and struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks down the stretch. Needing only one win in their final two weeks to secure a playoff spot, the Ravens lost their final two games by a combined 51 points.

If Monday night’s win was any indicator, the Ravens are primed to finish strong and make it back to the postseason — even with a very tight playoff picture. And it begins with Justin Forsett and the improved play of the offensive line under new coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Rushing for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns, Forsett continues to be one of the best stories of the 2014 season as his 5.8 yards per carry average leads all NFL running backs by a sizable margin. The offensive line consistently opens running lanes and the 29-year-old keeps finding daylight as he did repeatedly against New Orleans Monday night.

It’s the kind of style that should hold up nicely down the stretch for three more cold-weather games in Baltimore and whatever January could bring.

“Justin — awesome job, obviously, all year,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was very efficient in completing 18 of 24 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. “The work he’s putting in, the results he’s getting and what he’s doing for this team was huge. Our offensive line’s doing a good job, and they’re creating those seams. He’s got good vision. He’s not letting the guy tackle him in the hole with his arms or anything like that. He’s breaking those little things.”

Defensively, the numbers looked ugly Monday as the Ravens surrendered 525 total yards, but the eyeball test was far more acceptable. Aside from Joseph Morgan’s 67-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, the Saints only ran for 59 yards on 20 carries.

The Ravens put plenty of heat on Brees as Elvis Dumervil collected two of four sacks total and the pass rush recorded eight quarterback hits in all. The secondary continues to be an area of concern and will likely remain that way for the rest of the season, but the emergence of Hill gives coordinator Dean Pees at least one defensive back with some playmaking ability and a consistent pass rush goes a long way in hiding vulnerabilities on the back end.

Much of the success of a 7-4 start can be attributed to the Ravens’ ability to win at the line of scrimmage, whether talking about their offensive line or the front seven’s ability to stop the run and wreak havoc on quarterbacks. It’s cliched to talk about dominating the trenches, but Baltimore has a great chance to punch its ticket to the playoffs by continuing to do just that.

How would the Ravens stack up against the likes of high-powered offenses like New England or Denver in the playoffs? They have to worry about getting to January first playing in a division where all teams are three games above .500 — the first time that’s happened in NFL history, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

“You’re going to have to win a lot of games to win the division,” Harbaugh said. “You’re going to have win a lot of games to make the playoffs in our conference. It’s just a fact. You’re going to need every win you can get.”

The Ravens appear well equipped to play into January with a strong running game and one of the best front sevens in football. It’s a profile that holds up well against most opponents, home or away.

And it allows them to overcome their weaknesses, something they were able to do Monday night in one of their biggest road wins in recent memory.

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 23 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Fresh off their bye week and trying to complete a 2014 sweep of the NFC South, the Ravens return to the site of Super Bowl XLVII to take on the reeling New Orleans Saints Monday night.

Baltimore hopes that a Week 11 bye coupled with the Saints’ two-game losing streak will create enough momentum to snap New Orleans’ 14-game winning streak in prime-time home games. The 4-6 Saints are trying to find some semblance of consistency in a division in which no team has made a strong claim as a viable playoff contender.

The Ravens are 5-1 in games coming off their bye week in the John Harbaugh era and will attempt to win their third road game of the season. While they were able to find success against an underwhelming Tennessee offense in Week 10, the Baltimore secondary will have its hands full against the league’s third-ranked passing attack.

Monday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 4-1 advantage. This is the first contest between these teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since the 2006 season — which resulted in a 35-22 win for Baltimore — but the Ravens are obviously familiar with the surroundings after winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 7-4 to keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Will Hill will draw the bulk of the assignment against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who will catch a touchdown and eclipse 80 receiving yards. Much was made about Cincinnati’s physicality last week in limiting the All-Pro tight end to just three catches for 29 yards, but the Ravens haven’t exactly been imposing in the back end of the defense aside from Terrence Brooks’ big hit on Tennessee’s Delanie Walker two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to mix it up as much as possible against Graham, but Hill is the best fit with his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and ability in coverage. The Ravens have held tight ends in check for most of the season, but they haven’t encountered a talent like Graham and he will bounce back from a tough week against the Bengals with a strong game in Week 12.

2. Steve Smith and Marlon Brown will catch touchdowns passes against a banged-up New Orleans secondary. A week off and a meeting with an old foe he tormented year after year as a member of the Carolina Panthers are just what the doctor ordered for the 35-year-old Smith whose production has declined in recent weeks. The Saints are down to their third-string free safety and top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been dealing with a knee issue, which will lead to the veteran wideout finding the end zone for the first time since Week 6. Looking to boost their 19th-ranked red-zone offense, the Ravens will rediscover Brown as a viable option inside the 20 as the 6-foot-5 receiver will rein in a pass in the back of the end zone for his first touchdown of the 2014 season.

3. The Ravens will contain top rusher Mark Ingram, but a returning Pierre Thomas will create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. After a very slow start to his NFL career, Ingram has emerged in 2014 with a 4.5 yards per carry average to take over the feature back role for New Orleans, but the Baltimore defense has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry and won’t have an issue keeping him in check. The return of Thomas — who hasn’t played since Week 7 — will be critical for a passing game that will miss the injured Brandin Cooks, who was becoming the Saints’ second-best receiver behind Graham as a short-to-intermediate target. With the secondary providing plenty of cushion and linebackers paying close attention to wherever Graham is, the Saints will slip Thomas free out of the backfield repeatedly to move the chains.

4. C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will both collect sacks as the Ravens use inside blitzing to try to get to Drew Brees. Pees knows his defense must create pressure in the pocket against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief have been the strengths of their offensive line, meaning it won’t be a given that Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will create enough heat. The best way to pressure Brees is up the middle where center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have struggled in pass protection. Smith and Mosley have both been effective as A-gap blitzers, making it a good bet that the Ravens will try to ambush Brees up the middle. The strategy will pay off with each inside linebacker collecting a sack on Monday night.

5. Joe Flacco and Brees will each throw for over 250 yards, but the veteran will be a little better in a 31-23 win for New Orleans. A few weeks ago, it would have been tough to give the Ravens much of a chance in this one following the injury to Jimmy Smith on top of the Saints’ reputation for playing so well at home. But New Orleans is difficult to figure out with two straight losses at home that came after blowing out mighty Green Bay less than a month ago. On the other hand, a solid performance against the Titans isn’t enough to ease concerns that the Ravens secondary will be able to prevent the Saints from passing up and down the field all night. Flacco and the offense will put together one of their better road performances of the year, but it won’t be quite enough to put the Ravens over the top on Monday night.

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Ravens right tackle Wagner earning attention in ways few expected

Posted on 05 November 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens coaches offered similar sentiments over and over as second-year right tackle Rick Wagner was trying to secure his spot as a starter during spring organized team activities and summer training camp.

They’d say they hadn’t really noticed him on tape and not much was being said about him, which are compliments to a young offensive lineman in the same way you prefer an umpire or a referee to not stick out while officiating a game. But plenty of doubt was expressed from everyone else as the Ravens needed to replace right tackle Michael Oher after he departed in the opening days of free agency to sign a four-year, $20 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Instead of drafting an offensive tackle in the early rounds of May’s draft or adding a veteran familiar with Gary Kubiak’s system such as Eric Winston, the Ravens appeared content with Wagner competing against other in-house options such as Jah Reid and Ryan Jensen to take Oher’s place. The rest would be up to the 2013 fifth-round pick to prove them right.

“After I found out he was leaving, that was the first thing on my mind: ‘I have a great opportunity to take over the right side,'” Wagner said. “I was just thankful that the coaches trusted in me.”

That trust has certainly paid off with Wagner not only taking full control of the job but blossoming into an above-average right tackle who’s now garnering attention for his strong play instead of simply trying to blend in. In fact, Wagner has outperformed the man he replaced as he’s graded out as the best right tackle in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Oher has struggled in his first year with the Titans, ranking 49th among the 51 tackles who’ve played at least 443 offensive snaps this season, per the same website.

Wagner has also committed only one penalty all season — a false start in Week 8 — after infractions were a frequent issue with Oher in his five years with Baltimore.

In the last week, Wagner was named to mid-season All-Pro teams by CBSSports.com and PFF, a reflection of how he’s more than just holding the job for the Ravens’ improved offensive line and how he’s slowly turning heads around the league. Head coach John Harbaugh said he had no idea when asked whether Wagner was playing at a Pro Bowl level, but the question alone reflects what great strides the second-year tackle has made in 2014 after playing just 131 snaps as a rookie when he was primarily used as an extra blocking tight end in the jumbo package.

After a 2013 season in which offensive line coach Juan Castillo drew plenty of criticism for the play of his unit, Wagner has been the assistant’s greatest success story in Baltimore.

“The thing that jumps out at me is his consistency. Rick is very consistent,” Harbaugh said. “He executes the techniques exactly the way that the scheme calls for. He gets it right most all the time. If he does get beat — like anybody does at times — it’s physically. And that doesn’t happen very often.”

A quiet but imposing 25-year-old with a 6-foot-6, 310-pound fram, Wagner is admittedly uncomfortable speaking with media — he joked that he was more at ease playing in Pittsburgh last Sunday than he was at the podium in Owings Mills Wednesday — but he’s taking the high praise as a confidence boost in his first full year as a starter.

Playing next to three-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has certaintly helped Wagner’s development as the two share Big Ten roots — Yanda at Iowa and Wagner at Wisconsin — and have formed plenty of sizable running lanes for the league’s 10th-ranked running game. Despite being appreciative of the recognition, it’s clear Wagner prefers talking about the overall improvement of the offensive line rather than his individual contributions.

“I think pass protection has been pretty [improved],” said Wagner about how his game has improved since his rookie season. “Run blocking as a whole [offensive] line, we’ve been pretty good. It’s great playing next to Yanda. He really helps me out. It’s phenomenal playing next to him. The communication, the double-teams we have together — it makes my job easier.”

Wagner is the only Ravens player not to miss an offensive snap all season and doesn’t recall even missing a practice. It’s the kind of durability that commands respect and praise from teammates, both young and old.

There’s nothing fancy about him as veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs nicknamed Wagner “The Salesman” in reference to his ordinary name and a belief that he’d be good at selling “a lot of good stuff” despite his quiet demeanor. But there’s been nothing common about the tackle’s play as what was once a concern entering the season is now a position of strength for the Ravens.

“He has been working his tail off, and I think that’s a feel-good story,” Suggs said. “He showed that he can hold his own, and he has been playing phenomenal for us. You have to tip your hat to a guy that shows up to work. Those guys [are] in there in the trenches. They don’t really get a lot of credit for the things that they do, but he has definitely been a big part of our success.”

And it’s about time he’s being noticed for it.

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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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High stakes return for Ravens-Steelers, even if same bite hasn’t

Posted on 31 October 2014 by Luke Jones

The infamous lyrics are piped through the speakers as the Ravens offense huddles up for its next play.

Oh, Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law… 

Only it’s not a critical fourth-quarter moment against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field as the Styx song is instead sounding as the Ravens go through a Wednesday practice in Owings Mills. A number of Ravens players have admitted over the last couple years to liking “Renegade” as the Steelers’ anthem has become a fixture on the playlist used at practices in Owings Mills.

It’s a sentiment that was unlikely to be uttered by Ravens players a decade ago, but perhaps it speaks to the way the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry has evolved in recent years. Sunday marks the 41st overall meeting between these AFC North foes with the stakes as high as they can be in early November with the Ravens and Steelers right on the heels of first-place Cincinnati.

But you can’t help but feel something has been lacking from Ravens-Steelers recently. The games have remained close with the Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh earlier this season being the only one of the last five to be decided by more than three points, but the same bite hasn’t quite been there.

A rivalry in which the pre-game trash talk and bulletin-board material once rivaled the car-crash play on the field from an entertainment standpoint no longer fills reporters’ notebooks in the same way as even the once-brash Terrell Suggs has been more subdued in recent years. Former players and coaches such as Ray Lewis, Hines Ward, and Bill Cowher have provided the only inflammatory commentary in recent weeks by labeling Pittsburgh “soft” on defense, but you rarely hear such critiques from either side anymore as most vocal disdain has been replaced by mutual respect, which isn’t a bad thing, mind you.

The truth is these teams are different than the longstanding idea of the Ravens-Steelers mystique that fetches words such as bloodshed and old-school football.

On top of the departure of a number of outspoken figureheads including Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and last year marked the first time since 2002 that these teams played a game in which both entered with sub-.500 records. After Pittsburgh and Baltimore were near the top of every defensive category for more than a decade, both teams now lean more on offense — the Ravens do rank second in points allowed this year — with defenses in transition and possessing vulnerabilities.

By no means is the rivalry dead — far from it — but the narrative that once centered around two soul-crushing defenses now focuses on quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. And we’ll see if Sunday’s higher stakes pump new life into a Ravens-Steelers rivalry that’s seen more bizarre — journeyman quarterback Charlie Batch beating Baltimore in 2012 and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin interfering with Jacoby Jones’ sideline return last Thanksgiving night — than instant classic over the last couple years.

It’s an opportunity for new names to be made in the same way that wide receiver Torrey Smith entered his into Baltimore-Pittsburgh lore three years ago in catching the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of a Sunday night game at Heinz Field. That 2011 win was the difference in the Ravens clinching the AFC North title and a first-round bye and the Steelers losing a first-round game at Denver as both teams finished 12-4 with Baltimore’s season sweep being the tiebreaker.

After more than a decade of fighting high-stakes wars and spewing venom at one another, the annual meetings may not be the hottest thing going in the NFL anymore, but Ravens-Steelers has become a legacy rivalry, which is a tribute to how long these teams have beaten the hell out of each other. Many of the Ravens’ youngest players were only in elementary school when the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry first took off at the start of the new millennium, which is difficult to believe for a franchise still less than two decades old.

It may lack the history of Packers-Bears or Cowboys-Redskins, but the rivalry isn’t going anywhere with at least two games guaranteed every year and each fan base holding more disdain for the other than even the teams do. And young players on each side want to make their own mark after watching from afar and listening to veteran teammates talk about the battles of yesteryear in Pittsburgh.

“These guys all know it. They’ve watched it. They’ve grown up with it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “C.J. Mosley and I were talking, and he said he has been watching Ravens-Steelers since he was a little kid. For him, that’s about as long as the Ravens have been around. That goes to show you his whole life has been Ravens-Steelers.

“People talk about us being a young franchise, but for that generation we’ve been around for as long as any other franchise. This rivalry dates back for those guys that play for us that are young.”

Even if the rivalry has changed, the NFL still sees it as a major attraction with both Ravens-Steelers games landing in prime-time slots this season and at least one annual game being a nationally-televised affair since 2007.

The high stakes are back on Sunday with each team sporting a 5-3 record.

It will be fun to see what they have in store for one another.

And you know the Ravens won’t blink when they hear those familiar lyrics sound through the Heinz Field speakers at some point in the fourth quarter.

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Yanda, Daniels, Canty listed as questionable for Steelers game

Posted on 31 October 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Making final preparations for their prime-time battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens listed tight end Owen Daniels, defensive end Chris Canty, and right guard Marshal Yanda as questionable for Sunday’s game.

Daniels practiced Friday after he received Thursday off and is rapidly working his way back from last week’s cleanup procedure on his left knee. The veteran tight end was a limited participant on Wednesday after missing last week’s game in Cincinnati, but he was listed as a full participant for Friday’s workout.

Head coach John Harbaugh said a decision on Daniels likely won’t be made until Sunday evening, but he painted an optimistic picture for Yanda, who returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday and worked fully on Friday. Yanda injured his knee in Week 8, but he returned to play in the 27-24 loss to the Bengals.

“It’ll probably be a game-time [decision] for Owen, realistically, coming off knee surgery,” Harbaugh said. “Yanda practiced [Friday]. We’ll see how the knee reacts, but he’s a tough guy.”

Cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot) and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) were the only players absent from Friday’s practice as both were officially ruled out. Harbaugh said Monday that Smith would miss a few weeks with a mid-foot sprain, and the fourth-year cornerback is currently using crutches with his left foot in a protective boot.

Canty was a full participant all week and appears on track to make his return after a four-game absence due to surgery to address an infection in his wrist.

“Overall, I feel good; I feel healthy,” said Canty, who downplayed conditioning being a concern after a month-long layoff. “I think the coaches think I’m coming along nicely. We’ll see where we’re at, and they’ll evaluate things. Hopefully, I’ll have an opportunity to help this team win come Sunday.”

Running back Justin Forsett (ankle) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (shin) were listed as probable for Sunday’s game after practicing for a second straight day. Also listed as probable was linebacker Terrell Suggs, who missed two practices this week before returning to the field on Friday.

Harbaugh said the veteran pass-rusher looked “fine” after some rest earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, the Steelers officially ruled out cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ross Ventrone. Taylor had practiced on a limited basis this week, but Pittsburgh is trying to be cautious after he suffered a broken forearm in late September.

All other players listed on Pittsburgh’s injury report were listed as probable.

The referee for Sunday night’s game will be Bill Vinovich.

The forecast for Heinz Field on Sunday night calls for temperatures dipping into the 30s, but winds should dissipate in time for the 8:30 p.m. kickoff and there is only a 10 percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report for Sunday’s game:

BALTIMORE
OUT: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: DE Chris Canty (wrist), TE Owen Daniels (knee), G Marshal Yanda (knee)
PROBABLE: RB Justin Forsett (ankle), DT Haloti Ngata (shin), LB Terrell Suggs (neck), CB Lardarius Webb (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: CB Ike Taylor (forearm), S Ross Ventrone (hamstring)
PROBABLE: T Marcus Gilbert (concussion), DE Brett Keisel (non-injury), DT Steve McLendon (shoulder), TE Heath Miller (non-injury), S Michael Mitchell (non-injury), S Troy Polamalu (non-injury), LB Ryan Shazier (knee), TE Matt Spaeth (hamstring), S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring)

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