The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have developed one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries, and the two have found themselves in several highly competitive and physical matchups over the past few seasons.
There was little drama in their season opener in Baltimore, however, as the Steelers were handed a humiliating loss. Many were ready to write off the defending AFC champions at that point, but they’ve regrouped and now own the conference’s best record.
Pittsburgh looks to win its fifth straight and exact some revenge for the lopsided opening loss Sunday night when its hosts a Ravens team that has regressed a bit over the past few weeks.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed Pittsburgh as a 3 1/2-point favorite, with the total set at 42.
Heading into its Sept. 11 opener, the Steelers (6-2) had won six of eight meetings with Baltimore (5-2), including playoff victories following the 2008 and ’10 seasons. Each of the last five matchups had been decided by seven or fewer points with a field goal providing the difference four times.
The Ravens, though, seemed to set the tone for the 2011 season in the opener with a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh, their most lopsided victory in a bitter rivalry that began in 1996.
Baltimore, which irked some Steelers by converting a two-point conversion with a 20-point lead in the third quarter, sacked Ben Roethlisberger four times and forced a team-record seven turnovers. Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and fumbled twice in losing to the Ravens for the first time in eight games. He is 7-1 all-time against Baltimore at Heinz Field.
“We don’t like it, but we accept it, and we’ll respond accordingly,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said following the defeat.
The Steelers have responded by winning six of seven and are coming off an impressive 25-17 victory over New England last Sunday. Pittsburgh limited the high-powered Patriots, who were 6-1 against the Steelers with Tom Brady at quarterback, to a season-low 213 yards. Roethlisberger picked apart New England’s defense for 365 yards and two touchdowns.
The Steelers are off to their fifth straight 6-2 start and have taken a half-game lead over Cincinnati and Baltimore atop the AFC North.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” said Roethlisberger, who is averaging 288.5 yards and has thrown 11 touchdowns and two interceptions during the four-game win streak. “When we don’t kill ourselves and stop ourselves, we can be pretty dangerous.”
They’ve also proved they can win with a patchwork defense.
Linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior are nursing injuries. Harrison has missed the last four games with an orbital bone fracture but is expected to return. Woodley has been ruled out after leaving the New England game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury. Farrior remains questionable after sitting out last week with a calf injury.
All of those injury problems mean rookie Chris Carter, second-year man Stevenson Sylvester and Larry Foote could take on bigger roles. Tomlin also didn’t rule out going to a four-man defensive line.
Despite playing without some regulars and being run over for 385 yards by Baltimore in September, the Steelers rank second in the league in total defense at 270.8 yards per game, right behind the Ravens at 263.3.
“They are slaying people and we are a part of that,” Tomlin said of Baltimore’s defense. “They are playing extremely fast, they are really talented, they know what they are doing and they are very rarely out of place. They have uniquely talented people at every level of their defense.”
That defense has been especially stingy the last two games, allowing fewer than 207 yards in each.
The Ravens’ offense hasn’t been nearly as impressive.
After managing a season-low 146 yards in a 12-7 loss to Jacksonville on Oct. 24, Baltimore had two first-half turnovers that led to Arizona touchdowns last Sunday. The Ravens trailed the one-win Cardinals by 21 points in the second quarter before mounting the largest comeback in franchise history to win 30-27.
Ray Rice, who rushed for a season-best 107 yards and scored two touchdowns Sept. 11, had three second-half TDs.
Baltimore seems unlikely to win at Heinz Field if it puts together a repeat performance of the Jaguars game or of the first half against the Cardinals. The Steelers have won seven straight at home, including playoffs.
“When we play good fundamental football, we’re a good football team. It comes down to that,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s technique, it’s attention to detail, it’s getting a little momentum.
“We know how to play that game, they know how to play that game. We looking forward to it, I do know that.”
Although Pittsburgh has forced an NFL-low three turnovers, the Ravens have to do a better job of protecting the ball. Baltimore has turned it over 13 times since the opener, with Joe Flacco responsible for four fumbles and six interceptions.
Flacco put together a strong performance against the Steelers in September, passing for 224 yards with three touchdowns, but has only thrown for five TDs since.