Yes, there are older rivalries where the feelings are hard and the memories are long, like Bears-Packers and Redskins Cowboys.
But in today’s NFL, matchups don’t come anymore more intense or hard-hitting than the Ravens (7-2) and Steelers (6-3). Throw in the fact that both teams are again fighting for first place in the AFC North and that they’ll meet twice in the next three weeks, and even more is on the line.
“That’s why this is the most heated rivalry in sports, next to Heat-Celtics,” Terrell Suggs said this week. “This game sends a shock wave through the NFL.”
Sunday Night Football, here they come.
The Ravens swept the season series in 2011, and have won 11-straight divisional games. But the Steelers have won all three playoff matchups.
Despite the lofty records for each team, the Ravens and Steelers will each limp into Heinz Field on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh isn’t sure how long quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be sidelined with a shoulder and chest injury. That means former Jaguars starter Byron Leftwich will direct the Steelers’ offense. Pittsburgh also won’t have receiver Antonio Brown (ankle), and All Pro safety Troy Polamalu continues to be out.
Overcoming those injuries will be a key part of Sunday night’s game, as will the three keys for each team:
Stop the run: With Roethlisberger out and Leftwich under center, the Steelers know they have to not only establish the run, but probably ride it for most of the game. They have three very good running backs and Rashard Mendenhall should be healthy and back in the starting lineup ahead of Jonathan Dwyer, who has come on, and Isaac Redman. The Steelers also have a quick scatback in Chris Rainey. The good news for the Ravens is that despite some struggles earlier in the season (26th against the run overall), they are playing more discipline in the run game and should be able to neutralize the run since Leftwich isn’t a big threat to hurt them through the air.
Make Ray Rice a factor: When the Ravens struggle offensively, it’s when they become too heavy and running back Ray Rice isn’t getting enough touches. The Steelers have the league’s top overall and passing defense, and are sixth against the run. Seven of nine opponents haven’t reached 100 yards. Rice had 107 yards against the Steelers in the first game last, but had just 35 yards on 13 carries last week against the Raiders. Still, the Ravens definitely noticed that Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs had 100 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers. The Ravens need that kind of performance and balance.
Protect Flacco: The Steelers are flying around on defense even without Polamalu and have made steady progress on defense. Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis are playing well, and nickel back Cortez Allen has impressed. The Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are also getting more creative and will have some different looks ready for Flacco. It’s imperative that the Ravens protect well up front – and that includes Rice, who can struggle picking up blitzes – because if you can give Flacco time, and he can diagnose the open spots early, there should be places in the Steelers’ zone to throw.
Have to run the ball: The Steelers’ offensive line has made progress, and they have three good running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman) that can rotate and stay fresh. With Leftwich under center, they’re going to have to because the Steelers will not win a shootout with the Ravens should one develop. They usually don’t in this game. This should be a low-scoring game, and time of possession will be important. The Steelers need to grind it out, but they also need the ground game to help the passing offense.
Give Leftwich time: If the Steelers are running the ball well, that means their play-action game will be effective. Leftwich needs that extra time because he is slow to get rid of the ball, and the receivers will need the time to develop their routes. The Ravens’ pass rush is below average. The Steelers shouldn’t have a problem blocking things up, but the Ravens will have some new pressures designed for this game. They’ll want to pressure Leftwich into mistakes as much as possible, and to cover for a secondary that is missing Webb, Smith and has safety Ed Reed playing through injury.
Send pressure: The Steelers shouldn’t have much trouble defending the Ravens’ pass if they can generate enough pressure. That means stopping Rice from being a big threat in the run, and then scheming up enough pressure where Rice has to stay in and block, which is not his strength. Quarterback Joe Flacco has played well of late against the Steelers. They can’t let him pick them apart. Limit Rice and the Ravens will rely on Flacco, and that should allow the Steelers to execute some of their pressure concepts to force key stops.
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2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
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