The Baltimore Ravens came into existence in 1996, following the franchise’s move from Cleveland. Within a few years, they were able to win Super Bowl XXXV with a record-shattering, buzzsaw defense that still ranks as the standard to this day. They often fielded a competitive team since, particularly in recent years, and they managed to capture the Super Bowl for a second time two seasons ago, defeating the San Francisco 49ers in a tight contest. Yet, Pittsburgh is the one team that the Ravens have yet to get past in the playoffs, and they want to erase the memory of past failures against the Steelers.
One source of concern for the Ravens is how they ended the season. They lost at Houston against a struggling Texans squad, and then barely squeaked by against the Browns, a losing team that had lost four games in a row and was led by a rookie quarterback making his first ever NFL start. But Baltimore eventually got past Cleveland, and received some outside help when the Chargers lost at Kansas City, which propelled the Ravens to a playoff appearance that had seemed improbable heading into the final weekend.
The Ravens want to erase the memory of past failures against the Steelers by finally earning a playoff win against them, and they will need running back Justin Forsett to have a strong game against a Pittsburgh defense that was one of the weakest rushing defenses in the league. Forsett stepped up in a big way for the Ravens this season, following the huge controversy surrounding running back Ray Rice for domestic violence, although his productivity dropped a bit in December. But Forsett can be a dangerous weapon, as evidenced by his performance against Cleveland last week, when he collected 119 yards on 17 carries. He can help the Ravens keep the Steelers offense off the field.
Pittsburgh enters this season in the unlikely position as AFC North champions, despite a wildly inconsistent season. They won some solid games against tough opponents, but also lost numerous times to much weaker opponents. However, they finally managed to get it going towards the end, winning their last four games of the regular season after falling behind in the divisional race to take the title. The last win against the Bengals clinched it for them, but one major source of concern was that they lost running back Le’Veon Bell during the game due to a knee injury. He remains hopeful for the game tomorrow night against the Ravens. Bell brings a diversity to the Steelers offense that will test the Ravens defense if he is healthy.
If Bell is not healthy, however, the Ravens can likely exploit the more limited offensive capabilities of the offense minus Bell. That would mean more of the workload is on the shoulders of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when he faces a Baltimore defense that notched 49 sacks this season. Roethlisberger enjoyed his best season this year, largely with the help of elite wide receiver Antonio Brown, who brings an explosive element to Pittsburgh’s passing game. The Ravens defense has been particularly vulnerable against the pass this season, ranking among the worst pass defenses in the league. That is why it Bell’s ability to play in this game becomes so important. It will be tough for the Ravens to defend on two fronts if the Steelers are at full strength. But if Bell is out, Baltimore can likely focus more on containing Pittsburgh’s dangerous passing game.
The Steelers defense knows that the challenge before them will be not only to shut down Forsett, but also to apply pressure against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco can be deadly when throwing deep, as evidenced by his record-setting performance throughout the 2012 playoffs, when he led Baltimore to a Super Bowl championship, capturing the MVP in the process. However, his productivity drops significantly when he is put under pressure.
The Ravens want to erase the memory of past failures against the Steelers by finally earning a playoff win against them. This is one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL today, with these two teams often seeming mirror images of one another. Historically, both teams have earned reputations as solid, gritty, defensive teams, and they are both regular playoff contenders. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh says that he particularly appreciates the physicality that both teams bring to the rivalry, and that this makes every play count. Familiarity could prove beneficial to either team. Pittsburgh holds a 24-17 edge all-time in this rivalry, but they also hold that key 3-0 edge in playoff meetings between the two that nags at the Ravens. If Baltimore can notch that first win against Pittsburgh outside of the regular season, they will likely need their defense to step up, as well as strong production from both their running and passing games. Nothing short of a total team effort will do against a peaking Pittsburgh team that, for the fourth time in the history of this rivalry, enjoys home field advantage in a playoff meetings together.
By Charles Bordeau
The New Zealand Herald
Photo by Keith Allison – Flickr