The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers renew their storied rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field, and both teams are badly in need of a win. That should only increase the intensity, which is never an issue anyway when these teams meet.
What is a bit unfamiliar, however, is how both teams have struggled this season. The 1-4 Steelers went winless in September. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are just 3-3 and have issues on both sides of the ball.
ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley joins me for Double Coverage, and, Jamison, one thing I have wondered is whether this rivalry has lost some of its luster. Forget that the teams are a combined 4-7 and simply consider some of the faces of the rivalry who are either retired or playing elsewhere.
When I think of Ravens-Steelers, I see Ray Lewis ending Rashard Mendenhall’s rookie season with a devastating hit, and Ed Reed covering all kinds of ground in the secondary. I see Hines Ward infuriating Bart Scott to the point that Scott threatened to kill him, and James Harrison’s breakout game against Baltimore in his first season as a starter.
Game-winning drives engineered by Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have been a constant in this rivalry since 2008, but I’m wondering if raw emotion and animosity are still as much a part of this game as in years past.
Jamison, you have seen your share of alley brawls masquerading as football games between the Steelers and Ravens. What is your take on where the rivalry is with their first meeting of the 2013 season just days away?
Hensley: I agree with you that the "bad blood" between these teams is significantly lower these days. Daryl Smith, who replaced Ray Lewis, isn't a trash-talker. He isn't a talker, period. And Antonio Brown isn't going to knock a cornerback down on a running play. This is what got under the players' skin.
The only player on the Ravens who will carry the emotional torch is linebacker Terrell Suggs. He once wore a shirt in training camp that had a cartoon Raven flashing a certain finger at the Steelers' logo. Suggs has never hidden the fact that he has an extreme dislike for Pittsburgh, which is why he probably plays so well against the Steelers. Honestly, rivalries are only as good as the stakes involved. The Ravens and Steelers are usually playing for first place in the division or in the playoffs. With neither team holding a winning record, the aura of Sunday's meeting isn't the same as previous years.
This rivalry is also considered one of the most physical in all of sports. These two franchises were built on running the ball and pushing defenders off the line. But the days of Jamal Lewis and Jerome Bettis are long gone. The Ravens have the NFL's 27th-ranked run game and the Steelers are 31st in rushing yards per game. What's been the biggest problem with the Steelers' ground attack this season?
Brown: The biggest issue is that the Steelers’ plans for the running game were blown up when Le’Veon Bell went down with a mid-foot sprain in the second preseason contest. The Steelers simply don’t have a viable No. 1 back behind him, and problems with the running game were compounded when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down in the opener with a season-ending knee injury.
The Steelers haven’t rushed for 100 yards in a game since the last time they played the Ravens at Heinz Field, and that was almost a year ago. Despite that and despite the fact the Steelers are averaging a feeble 61 rushing yards per game, the arrow for the running back, to paraphrase coach Mike Tomlin, is pointing up.
Bell has two NFL starts under his belt, and while his numbers haven’t been great, he looks the part of a No. 1 back, and he has impressed the Steelers with his physical running style. He is only going to get better with experience, and it looks like the Ravens are vulnerable against the run this season.
As you mentioned earlier, the Ravens aren’t exactly putting on clinics when it comes to running the ball, and it is shocking, at least from this end, to see how pedestrian Ray Rice has looked. He is one of the few backs who had success against the Steelers when they were one of the top run defenses in the NFL. Is this the kind of opponent, the kind of game that he needs to get back on track?
Hensley: Rice certainly hopes so. He has gained more than 36 yards rushing just once this season, and has not averaged more than 3.4 yards a carry in any of his five games. After being limited to 34 yards on the ground last Sunday, Rice acknowledged that he's "a little frustrated."
Unlike in previous seasons, Rice has been more hesitant when running to the line. Some of it can be traced back to poor blocking by the offensive line. Coach John Harbaugh said the team is changing its run scheme because the Ravens can't keep allowing their running backs to get hit behind the line of scrimmage. But Rice is partly to blame as well. He lacks the same explosiveness and power. He's broken only three tackles this season, and is averaging 1.1 yards after contact (39th in the NFL). The Ravens are still committed to the run, but Rice can't keep getting stopped for just a couple of yards.
The offensive line has been a problem in pass protection, too. This is why the Ravens traded multiple draft picks to Jacksonville for Eugene Monroe, who replaced Bryant McKinnie in the starting lineup Sunday. Flacco has been sacked 19 times this season; only three quarterbacks have been dropped more. Is there any chance the Ravens can keep a safe pocket against the Steelers?
Brown: The Steelers’ pass rush hasn’t been great this season, and they had just four sacks before dropping Geno Smith three times in their win over the Jets last Sunday. Rookie Jarvis Jones is still adjusting to the NFL game, sharing time at right outside linebacker with Jason Worilds.
The Steelers have been getting pressure from their defensive ends, and Cameron Heyward could be one to watch Sunday. He has overtaken Ziggy Hood as a starter and really seems to be coming into his own in his third season. I will be interested to see how frequently the Steelers blitz Flacco. Other than Torrey Smith, no one in the Ravens’ receiving corps really scares you, and that could allow the Steelers to leave their defensive backs in single coverage a lot and really go after Flacco.
That leads me to my final question: Are Flacco’s early struggles related to his supporting cast more than anything else?
Hensley: Flacco would be the first to tell you that he hasn't performed as well as the Ravens need him to. But he really has become a victim of circumstance. It starts with the run game, which has struggled to get yards on first and second downs. That leads to third-and-long situations, where Flacco has become a piņata at times because of the pass-protection problems. Plus, Flacco's top two targets from last season -- Anquan Boldin (traded) and Dennis Pitta (injured reserve-designated for return) -- are gone. Two of his wide receivers (Marlon Brown and Deonte Thompson) are undrafted players, and another (Tandon Doss) had been cut before the regular season started.
Some of Flacco's mistakes have come when he's tried to throw into tight windows like he used to do with Boldin and Pitta. The result has been interceptions. Of all the quarterbacks who have thrown for more than 1,500 yards this season, only three have more interceptions than touchdowns: Flacco, Matt Schaub and Eli Manning. Flacco has had most of his trouble on the road this season, but he has won his last three regular-season games at Heinz Field. Before Flacco, the Ravens had won four times in their 13 trips to Pittsburgh.
How would you rate the play of the other Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the division. How much has Big Ben factored into the slow start?
Brown: Roethlisberger has played reasonably well, especially considering how handcuffed he was in the first two games because of injuries. The only loss you can put on him is the one against the Bears, when he committed four turnovers, and those games are few and far between for him.
Roethlisberger has played really well since then, nearly bringing back the Steelers from a 17-point deficit against the Vikings in London, and then playing turnover-free ball against the Jets last Sunday while also completing nearly 77 percent of his passes.
I think the Steelers win if they protect Roethlisberger reasonably well. The games in which they have really struggled against the Ravens were when Roethlisberger had no chance against Baltimore's pass rush.