Ravens renew bitter rivalry at Steelers
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One of the league's most bitter rivalries will resume when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night in the first of two meetings this season between the AFC North foes.
The Steelers have had the upper hand of late against Baltimore by winning the past three matchups, including a sweep last season. Yet the series has been among the most fiercely contested in the league with nine of the past 13 meetings decided by four points or fewer, including Pittsburgh's 39-38 victory on Dec. 10.
"It's a great environment to play," Ravens tackle James Hurst said. "Their fans hate us, obviously. It's fun to run out and get booed, but it's a four-quarter game. It's the greatest game in football."
It will have early ramifications on the division standings. Baltimore (2-1) is tied with the Cincinnati Bengals atop the AFC North while the Steelers (1-1-1) are just a half-game behind after securing their first victory with a 30-27 win at Tampa Bay on Monday night.
"No time to pat ourselves on the back," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said after beating the Buccaneers. "We have AFC North football at Heinz (Field), and we respect and understand what that's about. We didn't give a good accounting of ourselves the last time we were at home, so we are excited to get back into Heinz Field and performing for our fans."
The rivalry long has been noted for defense and physical play, but both squads feature explosive offenses. The Ravens are averaging 32.3 points per game and Pittsburgh is scoring 29.3.
So while that suggests a high-scoring matchup may be in the offing, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco sees the game as a chance to send an early message -- and more -- to the Steelers.
"It's more than just winning and losing a game," Flacco said. "It's beating a division opponent up a little bit, so they feel the effects the next week."
While both offenses have been clicking, the defenses have each had their moments. The Ravens are ranked No. 1 overall, allowing 819 yards over three games. Pittsburgh is tied with Dallas for second in the league with 11 sacks.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 353 yards and three scores against Tampa Bay and is second in the NFL with 1,140 yards, sees plenty of room for improvement for the Steelers.
"To only have one win, I would say offensively we're not doing our job," Roethlisberger said. "Obviously, their secondary is very good. It starts with (safety Eric) Weddle, who kind of leads that charge now. I also think the pass rush helps the secondary. You look at pass breakups, interceptions, a lot of times that has to do with pressure on the quarterback. They're just a really good defense all around."
JuJu Smith-Schuster has been Roethlisberger's favorite target with 27 receptions and a touchdown and Antonio Brown has 24 catches, but the running game continues to struggle in the absence of unsigned running back Le'Veon Bell.
James Conner erupted for 135 yards and two TDs in the season-opening tie at Cleveland, but has been limited to a combined 78 yards in the past two games. The Steelers are reportedly fielding trade offers for Bell but Baltimore is still preparing for the ultra-slim possibility that he could return.
"Of course, their running backs that they're playing now, James Conner and Co., that's who we'll looking at mainly," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "But, we've seen Le'Veon enough to understand what he brings to the table and how he affects what they do."
Flacco also has been impressive despite an overhauled wide receiving corps featuring Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV, who each have at least 12 catches and a combined four touchdowns.
Not only had Flacco thrown for 889 yards with six touchdowns and just two interceptions, but the Ravens have cashed in on all 12 of their opportunities in the red zone.
With another physical matchup expected against Baltimore, Tomlin said his team must keep its emotions in check. Pittsburgh has been penalized for an average of 120 yards per game, by far the worst in the league.
"We have to play cleaner than we did (Monday) night," said Tomlin. "We played hard, but we have to play cleaner, and we have to play smarter."
Updated September 27, 2018