Pittsburgh has slowly been making its climb back into the conference mix and has hit its stride just in time for Sunday's rematch with Baltimore, this time on the home turf of Heinz Field.
The Steelers aim for a fifth straight victory on the season and seventh in a row at home, including the playoffs. To do that, they'll have to shake off the memories of a turnover-filled 35-7 defeat in Baltimore back on Sept. 11.
The Ravens' defense was in top form in that game. Baltimore forced a franchise-record seven turnovers, intercepting Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three times and forcing a total of four fumbles. Roethlisberger was also sacked four times, and the Steelers' seven giveaways were their most in a game since also turning the ball over seven times versus Minnesota on Sept. 24, 1995.
With the Ravens having set a club record for their largest margin of victory in games against the Steelers, many expect Pittsburgh to be better prepared for Baltimore's swarming defense in this rematch.
And despite the Steelers having the second-ranked defense in the league behind only the Ravens, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was quick to praise the opposition on Tuesday.
"It's probably a coincidence at this juncture. I am not ready to at least put us in the conversation with the Ravens' defense," Tomlin said. "We are not even close to doing what they are doing right now. Maybe statistically, but the way they are generating splash plays sets them apart."
The Steelers held the ball for almost twice as long as the Patriots, taking some pressure off of their injury-plagued defense. Linebackers James Harrison and James Farrior were out, as was defensive end Aaron Smith. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley also suffered a hamstring issue towards the end of the game, putting his status for this contest in doubt.
Harrison (eye) has been cleared for practice but is unlikely to play until after the team's Nov. 20 bye, while Farrior is battling a calf issue and is questionable. Woodley's hamstring was reported to be a serious injury that could sideline him until the bye, but the linebacker said not to rule him out for this game. Tomlin added that Woodley's ability to practice will decide if he plays.
Wide receiver Hines Ward also missed the New England win with an ankle issue, but is expected to be available for this rematch.
The Steelers are trying to open a season 5-0 at home for the first time since 2007 and have won six of seven since their loss to the Ravens to take a half- game lead over Baltimore and Cincinnati for first place in the division.
The Ravens won four of five to open the season before suffering an ugly 12-7 loss in Jacksonville on Oct. 24. They were then in danger of losing a second straight time last Sunday to an Arizona team that came into the game with only one win, but rallied from 21 points down to beat the Cardinals, 30-27.
Baltimore trailed 24-6 at the break, but outgained Arizona by a 249-56 margin in the second half and scored 24 unanswered points. The Ravens then won it on Billy Cundiff's 25-yard field goal as time expired.
"We woke up, plain and simple," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin. "Our offense came out flat. We turned the ball over a couple times. We felt like we gave them 14 points. We just woke up in the second half. We knew that we couldn't keep putting our defense in that situation. Still had a bitter taste in our mouth from last week, so we wanted to come out and rectify that."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said earlier this week that the come-from-behind victory may have given the club more confidence for this game than its Week 1 rout of Pittsburgh.
"We have to look back at it and see what we did well, and see what we can carry over to this game plan," Flacco said of the first win over the Steelers. "I think last week, really, was more important for our confidence heading into this week than that week was. We always feel like we can play with these guys and go give them a good matchup and go beat them."
Baltimore is trying to start a season 6-2 for a second straight season and the third time in club history.
Baltimore's win at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2011 opener cut Pittsburgh's overall lead in this regular-season series to 18-13, and the Ravens also handed the Steelers a 17-14 defeat at Heinz Field during Week 4 of last year, though Roethlisberger did not play in that contest while serving a suspension. Pittsburgh has bested Baltimore in the Steel City in seven of the past nine seasons, however, and the Ravens have not swept the home-and-home set between the teams since 2006.
Pittsburgh moved to 3-0 against Baltimore in postseason play with last season's win in the Divisional Round. In addition to a 23-14 home verdict for the Steelers in the 2008 AFC Championship, the Black and Gold also earned a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field.
Including the playoffs, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh is 3-6 all-time against the Steelers, while Tomlin owns a 7-4 record versus the Ravens and is 6-3 in head-to-head encounters with Harbaugh.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Flacco and the offense shook off some early turnovers that gave the Cardinals some easy points. Baltimore managed just a pair of Cundiff field goals in the first half, but running back Ray Rice (489 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 7 total TD) went off for a career-high three touchdowns in the second half, all from three yards or closer. Rice ended with 63 yards on 18 carries and also caught seven balls for 36 yards. Boldin (34 receptions, 2 TD) also had a big day against his former team, hauling in seven passes for a game-high 145 yards. Tight ends Ed Dickson (28 receptions, 1 TD) and Dennis Pitta (16 receptions) made six catches each, but wide receiver Torrey Smith (15 receptions, 3 TD) caught only three of his nine targets for 57 yards. Though he did not throw a touchdown pass and was intercepted once, Flacco (1751 passing yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) still posted 336 yards passing, completing 31 of the career-high 51 throws he attempted. Flacco was also sacked three times, but could have left guard Ben Grubbs back in the lineup for the first time since Week 1 as he recovers from a toe injury. Wide receiver Lee Evans remains doubtful with an ankle problem, however, while both center Matt Birk and receiver David Reed are questionable because of injuries.
Pittsburgh hasn't allowed more than 20 points in a game since its loss to Baltimore, a matchup in which the Ravens racked up 385 yards of offense. The Steelers, though, now rank second overall in total defense (270.8 ypg) and stand first versus the pass (171.6 ypg). Unlike the Ravens, the Steelers struggle in forcing turnovers, however, as they have just two interceptions and four fumble recoveries on the season. Overall, Pittsburgh has a turnover ratio of minus-10 and did not force one versus the Patriots. Still, the fact that the Steelers limited New England to just 213 yards of offense without Harrison (23 tackles, 2 sacks) and Farrior (45 tackles, 2 sacks) is impressive. Woodley (36 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) managed two sacks before suffering his injury, while Harrison replacement Larry Foote (30 tackles, 1 sack) and safety Ryan Clark (50 tackles, 1 INT) led the team with eight tackles each. Defensive end Brett Keisel (19 tackles, 3 sacks) added a sack, while cornerback Ike Taylor (20 tackles) ended with six stops. If Woodley and Farrior can't play this weekend, Lawrence Timmons (37 tackles) would be the lone regular starting linebacker in the lineup.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (2302 passing yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) has done his best in putting the season-opening game behind him. He has just four interceptions in seven games since getting picked off three times by Baltimore and has thrown 11 touchdown passes over the Steelers' four-game win streak, including two versus the Patriots. Roethlisberger finished that contest with 365 yards on 36-of-50 passing and was also picked off once. Mike Wallace (43 receptions, 5 TD) ended with seven catches for 70 yards, but the wideout's long was only 16 yards as the Patriots looked to take away his deep-play ability. That left plenty of balls for wide receiver Antonio Brown (34 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Heath Miller (30 receptions, 2 TD), with Brown pulling in nine passes that included his first career touchdown. Miller had seven receptions for a team-high 85 yards. With Ward (26 receptions, 2 TD) out, Emmanuel Sanders (18 receptions, 2 TD) added five catches for 70 yards against New England. Seeing as the passing offense was clicking and ranks eighth overall in the NFL, starting running back Rashad Mendenhall (421 rushing yards, 3 TD) got just 13 carries last week, but did turn those opportunities into 70 yards for a 5.4 average per carry.
The respected Ravens defense may have yielded 27 points last week, but short fields and a special-teams score inflated that total. The NFL's top-ranked unit (263.3 ypg) actually gave up a mere 207 yards of net offense, including just 98 through the air. On the season, Baltimore ranks third against both the run and the pass. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (33 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) was all over the field against Arizona, recording a game-high 13 tackles and a sack. He has 13 1/2 career sacks versus the Steelers in the regular season, the most any active player has compiled against the franchise. Safety Ed Reed (27 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) had a pair of interceptions in the Week 1 meeting with Pittsburgh and Suggs had three sacks in that game. Linebacker Ray Lewis (55 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) also had a pick and seven tackles in the Week 1 rout, and added five more stops versus the Cardinals. In all, the Ravens logged six sacks against Arizona, getting a pair from pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger (6 tackles, 3 sacks) and one each from cornerback Chris Carr (7 tackles, 1 sack), linebacker Jarret Johnson (26 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and safety Bernard Pollard (21 tackles, 1 sack). Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who suffered an injury at the season's onset and has been working his way back since, is expected to see an expanded role in this game. Though he did not log a tackle versus the Cardinals, he did have one pass defensed.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Keep an eye on Rice. The Steelers' defense has allowed just three 100-yard rushers in its last 58 games dating back to 2007, but Rice has two of them. That includes 107 yards in the Week 1 victory and a 141-yard effort in Pittsburgh on Dec. 27, 2009.
Flacco and Roethlisberger both have their work cut out for them this week, and whichever quarterback finds a way to make plays will likely come out on the winning side. The edge could go to Flacco given the Steelers' issues at linebacker.
Keep Heinz Field involved. The Steelers are always tough to play at home and bring an impressive run into this meeting. The Ravens are just 5-10 all-time at Pittsburgh during the regular season and 0-3 there during the playoffs.
While a Week 9 matchup certainly won't decide the AFC North, especially with Cincinnati lurking in the shadows, the victor of this key clash will certainly have an edge should the Steelers and Ravens meet for a third time this season in the playoffs. That being said, Baltimore's Week 1 victory likely won't factor into how this game will shake down. Enough time and games have passed to make that meeting irrelevant at this point, and the change in venue certainly seems to favor the Steelers. Pittsburgh's injuries on defense could be the x- factor, but the Ravens have been just too inconsistent this year to leave Heinz Field with a win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 21, Ravens 17