AFC North: 2013 Week 7 BAL at PIT

Joe FlaccoLloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/Getty ImagesJoe Flacco and the Ravens did not score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
PITTSBURGH -- It's too early to write off the Baltimore Ravens, even though this is the first time they have had a losing record this late in a season in their six years under John Harbaugh. But let's be honest: Their 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was further evidence it's time to have serious doubts whether the Ravens are physically and mentally good enough to turn around their season.

There are disturbing trends that have caused the defending Super Bowl champions to fall two games behind the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (5-2). The Ravens (3-4) can't run the ball and can't stop teams from running it up the gut, which happens when a team gets pushed around. Baltimore continually gets off to slow starts, playing catch-up. And Harbaugh's aggressive decisions have repeatedly backfired for a team whose past three losses have come by a combined eight points.

No one in the Ravens locker room suggested pushing the panic button. Actually, it's worse. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs declared a state of emergency as if the Ravens are a nation in peril.

"I'm very concerned," Suggs said. "We can't kid ourselves anymore. We've got a tremendous amount of work to do."

The Ravens are the first defending Super Bowl champion to have a losing record after seven games since the 2006 Steelers. Baltimore's downward spiral would be easier to justify if it were losing to the likes of the Denver Broncos every week. But they're not.

The Ravens lost to rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and a Bills secondary without three starters. They lost to the Green Bay Packers, who were without Clay Matthews and two of their top wide receivers. And Sunday they lost to the Steelers, who had gone 0-for-September running behind a makeshift offensive line.

Players and coaches talked about how the bye week can give this team the time it needs to improve. But can an extra week fix the same Ravens problems that keep coming up week after frustrating week?

The Ravens still can't run the ball, having more success on the ground by spreading the Steelers with three wide receivers and going shotgun. The results, though, were the same: Take away Joe Flacco's scrambles and the Ravens averaged 2.8 yards rushing against the NFL's 22nd-ranked defense.

The Ravens still can't stop the run, giving up 141 yards to the Steelers a week after allowing 140 yards on the ground. The Steelers, who didn't have their Pro Bowl center and were without their starting right tackle for most of the game, rushed for 82 yards in the first half, more than they have had in any game this season.

And the Ravens special teams had lapses, too, although there were no punts blocked this time. Their coverage teams were awful, their return team nearly fumbled the ball back to Pittsburgh and their kickoff team poorly executed an onside kick in the fourth quarter.

"I still have a lot of confidence," Flacco said of the Ravens. "It's going to be a dog fight just like it always is in this division."

The Ravens' biggest fight isn't against the Bengals, Browns (3-4) or Steelers (2-4). It's with themselves.

The Ravens offense was in Steelers territory six times, but scored only one touchdown with three field goals. The real hand-wringing moment for the Ravens came in the third quarter, when Flacco underthrew wide receiver Jacoby Jones for an easy touchdown that would have given the Ravens the lead. Struggling to score points has been a painful theme for the Ravens, who have been held to 20 points or fewer in their past three losses.

The defense not only failed to get the Steelers off the field consistently, but it helped Pittsburgh extend drives. Pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil had a nightmarish series in the third quarter, when an unnecessary roughness penalty (he pushed Ben Roethlisberger after the play) converted a second-and-17 and a face mask penalty negated a drive-ending sack. The Ravens finished with nine penalties for 67 yards.

The mental mistakes are what should really drive Harbaugh and the Ravens crazy. If you're going to debate whether the Ravens should have attempted that onside kick in the fourth quarter, you have to point out the Ravens didn't give themselves a chance to steal an extra possession. Jeromy Miles was offside, so it didn't matter if kicker Justin Tucker recovered it.

"To me, that's the unforgivable part of that," Harbaugh said. "I don't want to see a guy offsides when you do a surprise onside kick. We talk about it every time we do it. It's all moot. If you're offsides, you're not going to get it. That's the part that ticks me off more than anything."

Perhaps these are all signs this isn't the Ravens' year. And it didn't get any better after the game when the Ravens' plane to Baltimore had mechanical problems, delaying their return home for more than an hour.

"We're just putting the pieces together," running back Ray Rice said after being held to fewer than 50 yards rushing for the fifth time in six games. "It's the time of the year where we have to create our identity. We have to find out who we are as a football team. Obviously, we know that nobody is going to walk all over us. We work too hard for that. But we'll find out who we are as as team when we come back off the bye."

Right now, the Ravens are a team losing their grip on a division they've won the past two seasons. Right now, the defending champions are in a state of emergency.
Troy Polamalu AP Photo/Don WrightThe Steelers played ball-control offense and stingy defense and won their second straight.

PITTSBURGH -- He arrived at Tandon Doss' torso at roughly the same time as a Joe Flacco pass, and the resulting collision left Troy Polamalu noticeably woozy.

Doss hung on to the ball in yet another tighter-than-shrink-wrap game between the Ravens and Steelers at Heinz Field. But Polamalu retained his senses, which seemed like a fair trade even though Flacco was conjuring up more of his late-game magic when the Steelers desperately needed a stop.

Polamalu got up, and the Steelers safety, who is as religious as he is relentless, did the sign of the cross for good measure. Nothing provided a better metaphor for the Steelers after Ben Roethlisberger, not Flacco, led a game-winning drive at Heinz Field.

The Steelers are 2-4 after beating the Ravens 19-16, and they have steadied themselves after a wobbly start that probably had fans seeking divine intervention.

It is not just that the Steelers have won two games in a row for the first time in almost a year. It is how they prevailed that leads you to think they can continue to pull their season back from the brink, especially with a winnable game at Oakland next on the schedule.

Forget for a second that the Steelers unveiled a Wildcat package that surprised the Ravens as much as it did the fans who crammed into Heinz Field for the renewal of one of the NFL’s most contentious rivalries.

Or that the Steelers’ only touchdown came on a shovel pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Heath Miller.

In the end, there was nothing gimmicky about the Steelers’ first regular-season win over the Ravens in Pittsburgh since 2009.

The Steelers were the more physical team, and their oft-maligned offensive line got enough push and provided enough openings for the Steelers to rumble for 141 yards and average just under 5 yards per carry.

The defense, meanwhile, extended its streak of not allowing a touchdown to eight quarters before Flacco masterfully led a late scoring drive that culminated in a 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Dallas Clark.

It also snuffed out the Ravens’ running game -- Ray Rice averaged just 3 yards per carry while rushing for 45 yards -- and the Steelers didn’t allow big plays save for one.

Torrey Smith caught a 41-yard pass on a perfectly thrown ball from Flacco late in the third quarter, but the Steelers limited the damage to three points.

And that was no small consideration since the Steelers and Ravens played a sixth consecutive regular-season game in Pittsburgh that was decided by three points.

Miller said after the Steelers beat the Jets last Sunday that it felt right in the locker room. The victory over the Ravens looked right even if it wasn’t always pretty.

It looked like Steelers football, not the hideous mutation that resulted in the team’s first 0-4 start since 1968.

And who knows how far stingy defense and a ball-control offense can take the Steelers as they try to fight their way back in a very mediocre conference.

“Although our team has changed from year to year that’s been our formula,” Polamalu said.

When asked what the Steelers have to do to stay on a winning track, Polamalu said, “Not pat ourselves on the back and continue to grind.”

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarFor the 28th time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
That seemed to be one of the dominant themes in a happy but hardly overjoyed postgame locker room.

And rightfully so.

The Steelers still need a telescope to see the top of the AFC, and the victory over the Ravens came against a reeling champion that has declared a state of emergency, according to outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The win also came in spite of the Steelers themselves, who controlled the game but still needed Roethlisberger to bring them back from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie for the 28th time in his career.

The Steelers had to settle for too many Shaun Suisham field goals. They lost a fumble that prevented them from taking a double-digit lead into halftime and they didn’t force any turnovers.

Not that style points mattered considering the stakes involved for the Steelers.

“We were playing for our season,” outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “When we started the season 0-4 a lot of people counted us out and we’ve still got an opportunity to turn this thing around. It’s supposed to have been like this all year and we’ve just got to continue to play like this.”

The biggest indication that the Steelers have restored some normalcy came after Emmanuel Sanders' kickoff return late in the fourth quarter was brought back to Pittsburgh’s 34-yard line following a ruling that he had stepped out of bounds on the way to the end zone.

The Steelers still had almost two minutes to break a 16-16 tie and a quarterback with a long list of clutch scoring drives to his credit.

But the late-game heroics that had become so associated with Roethlisberger also became few and far between as the Steelers slipped to mediocrity last season. That could have been weighing on the minds of the players in their huddle before the final drive of the game.

It apparently wasn't.

“No one had any negative thoughts,” Sanders said. “We just had the feeling we were going to go win it.”

Roethlisberger did just that, completing three passes and drawing an illegal contact penalty that gave the Steelers their initial first down on the final drive.

He and the offense set up Suisham, whose right leg did the rest.

“We need to have all the confidence in the world that we are going to go down and win this game,” Roethlisberger said of the Steelers' mindset. “I think it is big when everybody buys into what you are doing and we did a good job of that.”

Locker Room Buzz: Pittsburgh Steelers

October, 20, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Observed in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 19-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Sanders
Oh so close: Mike Tomlin didn’t hide his displeasure about the late kickoff return for a touchdown that was called back after Emmanuel Sanders stepped out of bounds at the Steelers’ 37-yard line. Sanders, who brought a deep kickoff out of the end zone, came within inches of successfully staying in bounds along the Steelers sideline and scoring. What upset Tomlin is that the call could not be reviewed per NFL rules, which seems silly considering the impact the play had on the game and how close it was. “I’ve got to go back and look at it,” Sanders said when asked if he stayed in bounds. “I saw it on the replay board. It seemed like I tiptoed the boundary but it was so close.”

A new wrinkle: The Steelers ran the Wildcat offense four times with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell taking a direct snap from center. Bell, who ran three times out of the formation and once handed off to wideout Antonio Brown, said the Steelers had not practiced the Wildcat until last week. That’s right, the Steelers did not work on the Wildcat in any of their offseason practices or during training camp, which is why the Ravens didn’t expect it. “I’m comfortable with it,” said Bell, who ran the Wildcat at Michigan State and played quarterback at high school. “We can get better at it.”

Injury update: Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (concussion) didn’t dress even though the rookie passed an imPACT test on Friday. Tomlin said renowned concussion doctor Micky Collins expressed reservations about Jones playing against the Ravens following a check-up on Saturday. “We didn’t second-guess it,” Tomlin said. “We moved on. It is my assumption that he’ll be ready to go next week.” Right tackle Marcus Gilbert aggravated a quadriceps injury early in the game and did not return. Tomlin opted for Guy Whimper over Mike Adams at right tackle because the latter had figured prominently into the Steelers’ plans to use a lineman as an extra tight end, and the coach did not want to disrupt that.

Welcome back: James Farrior, a stalwart on the teams that won a pair of Super Bowls and played in three of them from 2005 to 2010, shared a long hug with Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The former linebacker caught up with different teammates in the victorious locker room and said he is plenty busy even though he is no longer involved with football. Farrior and his wife have 12-week-old twins and are raising them in Houston. Since she works, Farrior, who retired in 2012 after the Steelers released him, is now a full-time dad. His smile suggests he is loving every minute of it.

Locker Room Buzz: Baltimore Ravens

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
8:45
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PITTSBURGH -- Observed in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 19-16 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Suggs
Suggs declares 'State of Emergency': The Ravens have a losing record after seven games for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was the most outspoken player in the locker room. "I'm very concerned," Suggs said. "This has been very rare with this franchise that we've been under .500, especially with the exception of the first game. We can't kid ourselves anymore. We got a tremendous amount of work to do." Suggs later added, "We have a state of emergency now. We can't let no more of these games go by losing by two (points) and then losing by three. We have to have these games."

What upset Harbaugh: Many will second-guess coach John Harbaugh for going for an onside kick in the fourth quarter after cutting the Steelers' lead to 13-9. What got Harbaugh upset was Jeromy Miles getting flagged for offside, which would've negated a Ravens' recovery if Justin Tucker had fallen on the ball. "To me, that's the unforgivable part of that," Harbaugh said. "I don't want to see a guy offside. If you're offside, you're not going to get it. That's the part that ticks me off more than anything."

Rice insists he's not hurt: Running back Ray Rice, who declared he was at full strength Friday, was wearing an ice pack on his left shoulder. "Obviously, you can see I lowered the pads today," Rice said. "There's nothing wrong with my shoulder. I'm just putting it out there. It's called icing after the game. That's what happens when you play running back in the NFL."

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
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PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 19-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field:

What it means: In a word, everything. The Steelers needed consecutive wins to build their confidence and to stay relevant in both the AFC North and conference playoff picture. They didn’t make it easy on their fans or coach Mike Tomlin, but they gritted out their first regular-season win over Baltimore at Heinz Field since 2009. Emmanuel Sanders nearly won the game with a late kickoff return for a touchdown. After officials ruled he had stepped out at the Steelers’ 34-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the offense down the field and Shaun Suisham won the game with a 42-yard field goal on the final play. Roethlisberger led the Steelers back from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie for the 28th time in the regular season. He also got the better of Joe Flacco, who had directed late drives to beat the Steelers at home in two of the previous three years.

Stock watch: More than a quarter into the season, the Steelers discovered that they indeed have a running game. Rookie Le’Veon Bell rushed for 93 yards, justifying the praise Tomlin lavished on him last week. Bell averaged more than 5 yards per carry in just his third career game and first one against the Ravens while outplaying Ravens Pro Bowler Ray Rice. Bell’s big game allowed the Steelers to finally snap an 11-game streak of rushing for fewer than 100 yards. It also gave them a significant advantage in time of possession.

Playing it (too) safe: The Steelers hadn’t allowed a touchdown in eight quarters, which is why they didn’t get overly aggressive after the Ravens attempted an unsuccessful onside kick early in the fourth quarter. But recent history should have taught Tomlin to go for the knockout blow when he had the chance. After Suisham’s third field goal of the game increased the Steelers’ lead to 16-9, Flacco worked his patented Heinz Field magic. The Ravens quarterback coolly led the Ravens on a 16-play, 73-yard drive that he capped with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark. Flacco completed 9 of 10 passes for 60 yards on the only touchdown drive allowed by the Steelers.

What’s next: The Steelers travel across the country to play at Oakland, where the Raiders are in perpetual rebuilding mode but have given the Steelers problems in recent years. The Raiders have beaten their historic rivals two times in a row in Oakland, including last year, when defensive breakdowns doomed the Steelers to a 34-31 loss. The Steelers have lost three of their last four games to Oakland dating back to 2006. The Raiders are 2-4 and off this week.

Rapid Reaction: Baltimore Ravens

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
7:13
PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 19-16 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What it means: The Ravens (3-4) lost for the third time in four weeks to fall two games behind the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (5-2). The Ravens also become the first defending Super Bowl champion to have a losing record through seven games since the 2006 Steelers. It marked the first time the Ravens lost at Heinz Field in the regular season since 2009.

Slipping at the end: In another close finish in this AFC North rivalry, the Ravens' secondary couldn't stop the Steelers in the final two minutes of the game. Corey Graham's missed tackle led to a 13-yard gain by Antonio Brown. Then, Brown beat cornerback Jimmy Smith on an 11-yard slant to put the Steelers in field goal range. Shaun Suisham's 42-yard field goal won it as time expired.

Stock watch: Falling -- pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil. He committed an unnecessary roughness penalty (pushing down Ben Roethlisberger after the play) and a face mask penalty (which negated a drive-ending sack of Roethlisberger) that contributed 30 yards to a 70-yard drive that ended in a field goal, pushing the Steelers' lead to 13-6 in the third quarter.

Fourth-quarter Flacco: Joe Flacco, who has two game-winning drives in Pittsburgh, tied the game at 16 when he hit Dallas Clark for a 1-yard touchdown pass. He went 9-of-10 for 60 yards on that drive.

Curious decision: After cutting the lead to 13-9 early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens attempted an onside kick. But kicker Justin Tucker didn't hit the ball hard enough and touched it before it had gone 10 yards, giving the Steelers the ball at the Baltimore 38-yard line. The Ravens held Pittsburgh to a field goal, which put the Steelers ahead 16-9.

Critical miss: Flacco had Jacoby Jones open deep and would've had a touchdown -- and a third-quarter lead -- had he thrown the ball longer to the wide receiver. But Flacco underthrew Jones, and cornerback William Gay broke it up inside the 5-yard line.

Struggling run defense: The Ravens gave up 141 yards rushing a week after giving up 140 yards on the ground to the Packers. It's disturbing that the Ravens gave up so many yards to the 31st-ranked rushing team in the NFL. The Steelers gained 82 yards in the first half, the most yards rushing they've had in any game this season.

What's next: The Ravens head into their bye week before playing at the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 3.
PITTSBURGH -- A canvassing of veteran players in the locker room where they still aren't shooting pool reinforces the perception that you probably have to play in a Steelers-Ravens game to truly understand it.

As wide receiver Antonio Brown put it when asked if the Steelers rookies know what is in store for them Sunday: "I don't think they have a clue."

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesSteelers rookies can expect a level of grudge against the Ravens that even big college rivalries can't match.
Allow Brett Keisel, who knows what Steelers-Ravens is about as much as anyone, to try and explain.

"Coming out of college you always have certain rivalries that you kind of gear up towards," Keisel said. "When I was at BYU it was Utah. This Steelers-Ravens rivalry is a whole lot bigger, a whole lot meaner, a whole lot nastier. It's a grudge match, it really is."

And back to Brown to provide context to what a grudge match between two teams that don't like each -- in part because they are so similar -- entails.

"Guys aren't going to pick you up [after a play], guys are going to give you an extra shove, guys are going to come out of the tunnel fired up," Brown said.

Running back Le'Veon Bell is at least somewhat familiar with the ethos of Ravens-Steelers.

He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in a house filled with Steelers fans, and Bell said he always made it a point to watch Pittsburgh when it played Baltimore.

"I know how big the game is," Bell said. "I just haven't been a part of it yet. This is going to be like a bloodbath, two teams that really don't like each other."

It is also two teams that are perpetually fighting for the upper hand over one another. There is close and there is is Ravens-Steelers.

The teams have the same number of wins (11) as well as the same number of touchdowns (43) in the 22 games they have played since 2003, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"It always seems to be close, it always seems to come down to the end, who made a mistake who didn't so hopefully we don't," Keisel said.

The only consolation that the losing team Sunday will have is that it doesn't have to wait until next season to exact payback.

Indeed, asked if there are any parallels between Steelers-Ravens and Michigan-Ohio State, former Buckeyes star Cameron Heyward said, "Just that we circle both on the calendar."

Then, the Steelers defensive end added, "Only this one you circle twice."

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