View Full Version : Position in AFC North on Line in Steelers-Ravens Tilt

09-26-2008, 10:39 PM
Position in AFC North on Line in Steelers-Ravens Tilt
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(Sports Network) - An early battle for first place will be the feature attraction at Heinz Field on Monday night, as the Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the Baltimore Ravens in a quest for AFC North supremacy.

The Steelers and Ravens are the last two teams to win the division, though the presence of Baltimore at the top of the standings, even this early in the season, has been something of a surprise.

Due to a debilitating tonsil infection to would-be-starter Troy Smith in the third week of the preseason, and a simultaneous shoulder injury that ended Kyle Boller's season before it had begun, the Ravens were forced to throw rookie Joe Flacco into the fire at quarterback.

And Flacco, the No. 18 overall pick out of Delaware in the 2008 Draft, has responded with victories in each of his first two starts. Two Sundays after helping to take down Cincinnati (17-10) in the season-opener, Flacco led the Ravens to a 28-10 win over the Browns last week.

Though suffocating defense and a solid running game have been major elements in Flacco's success (the rookie has yet to throw a touchdown pass as a pro), the strong-armed signal-caller has a chance to accomplish something on Monday that has not been achieved in the NFL in nearly 40 years.

With a win over the Steelers, Flacco can become the first rookie quarterback since the Bengals' Greg Cook in 1969 to lead his team to a 3-0 start to the season.

Flacco's counterpart on Monday, Ben Roethlisberger, knows a little something about early-career success, having gone 13-0 in his rookie season of 2004 and also becoming the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl a year later.

But Roethlisberger, a season removed from his first career Pro Bowl citation, didn't quite feel atop the world in last Sunday's 15-6 setback at the Philadelphia Eagles.

Roethlisberger was sacked a whopping eight times in the loss, and was removed late in the contest in favor of backup Byron Leftwich.

"Big Ben," who went into that game nursing a shoulder injury, will start against the Ravens but will be without backfield running mate Willie Parker.

Parker suffered a knee sprain against the Eagles, opening the door for the first career start of rookie Rashard Mendenhall, the club's first-round pick out of Illinois in the 2008 Draft.


The Steelers hold a 14-10 edge in the all-time regular season series with the Ravens, including a conventional home-and-home split of last year's series. Pittsburgh drilled Baltimore by a 38-7 count when the teams met at Heinz Field for a Monday night game in Week 9, and the Ravens closed out their otherwise disappointing season with a 27-21 home victory over the Steelers in Week 17. Baltimore is 4-1 in its last five meetings with Pittsburgh, including a road win there in 2006.

Pittsburgh won the only postseason meeting between the teams, a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at home.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 1-1 against the Ravens in his career, while Baltimore's John Harbaugh will be meeting both Tomlin and Pittsburgh for the first time as a head coach.


Though in a quarterback-driven league, it has been Flacco (258 passing yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) that has received most of the attention, the work of the Baltimore running game has kept the pressure off the rookie in a major way. After converted fullback Le'Ron McClain (152 rushing yards, 2 TD) and rookie Ray Rice (85 yards) did most of the damage against the Bengals in Week 1, it was McClain and Willis McGahee who helped do in the Browns last Sunday. McGahee, who did not play in Week 1 while healing from a knee injury, missed some time versus Cleveland due to a cut over his eye, but still managed a team-best 75 yards on 16 total touches for the day. McClain also continued to be a fixture, carrying 17 times for 66 yards and scoring the first two touchdowns of his NFL career. Flacco enters Sunday's game with a weak 55.7 passer rating, but has been sacked just once and shown the ability to deliver the ball downfield to Derrick Mason (8 receptions), Mark Clayton (5 receptions) and Demetrius Williams (receptions).

Stopping the run will be job number one for the Steelers on Monday, and while that generally hasn't been a problem for the Pittsburgh defense, the team's ground-stopping crew won't be at 100 percent on Sunday. Former Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is out with a groin problem, and joins defensive end Brett Keisel (calf) on the shelf. Fill-ins Chris Hoke (1 tackle) and Nick Eason (5 tackles) will have to compensate for those absences, and linebackers Larry Foote (14 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and James Farrior (17 tackles) will have to be sharp behind them. With that area covered, a defense that has already generated 10 sacks on the year will look to tee off on the young Flacco. Outside linebackers James Harrison (16 tackles, 3 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (9 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) have accounted for half of the Steelers' 10 sacks through the first three games. On the back end, safety Troy Polamalu (12 tackles, 3 INT) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (16 tackles, 2 INT) will likely be among those trying to limit the Ravens' receivers, though Polamalu is considered questionable with a quad injury. Both Polamalu and McFadden had interceptions versus the Eagles last week, and McFadden added a fumble recovery.


One week after Roethlisberger (447 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) was attacked from all angles by the Eagles defense, the Steelers are likely to see more of the same from Baltimore, which has a head coach in Harbaugh who learned at the feet of Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Needless to say, Pittsburgh has to do a better job of protecting its quarterback. The absence of Parker won't make that easier, both because Mendenhall (28 rushing yards) is less likely to pick up a blitz, and because there won't be a proven rusher to take the pressure off the quarterback. When he throws, Roethlisberger will be hoping that Hines Ward (15 receptions, 3 TD) and Santonio Holmes (10 receptions) have the time to get downfield, with tight end Heath Miller (9 receptions) available as a target over the middle.

Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh o-line had better be ready to be attacked again on Monday. The Ravens have generated six sacks and four turnovers through their first two games, have allowed just one offensive touchdown so far, and are one of two teams that has yet to surrender a rushing TD entering Week 4 (Tampa Bay). The secondary has played at a particularly high level, with cornerback Chris McAlister (6 tackles, 2 INT) and Ed Reed (5 tackles, 1 INT) both living up to their Pro Bowl reputations. Reed had a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Browns. The pass rush generated five sacks of Derek Anderson last week, three of those going to ends Terrell Suggs (7 tackles, 2 sacks) and Trevor Pryce (2 tackles, 1 sack). Linebackers Ray Lewis (10 tackles) and Jarret Johnson (9 tackles, 1 sack) have led the run-stopping effort (70 ground yards per game) allowed, and tackles Haloti Ngata (8 tackles) and Justin Bannan (8 tackles, 1 sack) have had a strong presence at the point of attack. On the injury front for Baltimore, safety Dawan Landry (neck) and tackle Kelly Gregg (knee) will be out.


Probably a good idea to start both defenses and both kickers in this game. Otherwise, you're gambling big-time. Even the players that have been mostly productive offensively (Roethlisberger and Ward for the Steelers, McClain for the Ravens) figure to see their numbers take a hit here, as this contest screams "close and low-scoring." If you find yourself behind on Monday and are relying on points from this game to get you over the hump, you could be in trouble.


Normally, the Steelers would be salivating over the prospect of a rookie quarterback, making his first career road start, coming to Heinz Field for his initial primetime game. But Pittsburgh has to be more concerned with itself than its opponent at this stage, since the Steelers could do nothing about the assault on their quarterback last week and the injuries are beginning to pile up defensively. In reality, it is Baltimore that comes into this game as the relaxed team with nothing to lose, and that mentality (as well as the presence of a rejuvenated defense) should help them keep this one close. It is still foolish to bet on a rookie quarterback under these circumstances, but Pittsburgh won't have it easy in taking back command of first place in the division.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 16, Ravens 13

09/26 14:04:31 ET