One of the most intense rivalries in the NFL will resume this weekend as the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) travel to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) in what is could be one of the most defensive minded games in the season.
The rivalry stretches back over 29 regular season games and two playoff games. The Steelers lead the overall matchup, winning 19 of the 31 meetings, including the two playoff meetings. Last season, the teams split, with the Ravens winning 20-17 in overtime at Heinz Field on November 29, 2009; and the Steelers winning at M&T Bank Stadium, 23-20, on December 27, 2009.
The Ravens are coming off their first home game, a 24-17 win over the Cleveland Browns. Quaterback Joe Flacco broke out of his early season slump, going 22-for-31 for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Caution in the wind, however, as it was against a horrid Cleveland secondary. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin also had a breakout game, catching eight passes for 142 yards and all three touchdowns thrown by Flacco. Running back Ray Rice had 80 yards on 15 carries, but put a scare into the coaching staff when he had to leave the game in the fourth quarter after taking a hard fall to the knee. He was diagnosed with a knee contusion following an MRI on Monday and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s tilt. Back-up Willis McGahee came in and managed 29 yards on seven carries.
What can we expect on Sunday? Here’s a rundown on the matchups…
• Ravens rush vs. Steelers rushing defense
Everything that is the Baltimore rushing attack runs through Ray Rice. At this point, Rice is considered a game-time decision as he has been listed as doubtful due to his knee. If Rice does make a go of it, look for a healthy dose of McGahee and even some carries from fullback Le’Ron McClain. All of this could be moot, however, as the Steelers have given up just an average of 59.7 yards per game, good for third in the league.
In the first two weeks of the season, the Steeler defense held stars Michael Turner of the Falcons and Chris Johnson of the Titans to 42 yards and 34 yards, respectively. The Steelers employ a 3-4 defense and are led up front by nine-year veteran Brett Keisel, who has recorded five tackles (4 solo) and a sack through three games. The linebacking core is led five-year pro Lawrence Timmons, who is third in the NFL with 33 tackles (26 solo) and a sack. Even if Rice is healthy, don’t expect much from the running game. Last season, Rice did manage 88 yards on 19 carries in week twelve and 141 yards on 30 carries in week sixteen. Despite these numbers, the Steeler defense looks hunger and they have already chewed up two star running backs in 2010.
EDGE: Draw – if Rice plays effectively, he could play well; if Rice is on the shelf, big edge to the Steelers.
• Ravens pass vs. Steelers pass defense
Joe Flacco overcame his early season struggles against the Jets and Bengals to lead the passing attack against the Browns, and he gets the opportunity to continue to progress toward respectability against a Steelers passing defense that ranks 17th in the league through three games, giving up an average of 219 yards throug the air. Flacco will have to be careful, however, and keep the interceptions low, as the Steelers have picked off five passes in the early going. The secondary is led by safety Troy Polamalu, who has two interceptions to go with 15 tackles (10 solo). Last season, Flacco threw for 289 yards and a score in week twelve and for 166 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions in week sixteen. This season, the Ravens have a new weapon in Boldin, but the other receivers – Derrick Mason and the invisible T.J. Houshmandzadeh – need to step up their production or Boldin will surely face two man coverage throughout the game.
EDGE: Steelers – Flacco needs to find Boldin, but must also spread the ball around to keep them honest. The Steelers do give up yardage through the air, but they have ballhawks in Polamalu and cornerback Bryant McFadden.
• Steelers rush vs. Ravens rushing defense
The Steelers’ running attack is centered around Rashard Mendenhall, and with good reason. Last season was his first as the full time starter and he did not disappoint, totaling 1369 all-purpose yards (1108 rushing, 261 receiving) and eight touchdowns. So far in 2010, Mendenhall continues to be productive, as he has topped 100 yards twice in three games. In this tilt, he faces the Baltimore rushing defense that has shown considerable vulnerability so far in 2010. The Ravens have given up an average of 127.7 yards per game, but the performance of Browns running back Peyton Hills, who surprised the Ravens with 144 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown in Week 3, may have surprised the defensive unit. Aside from Hillis, the Ravens held Jets running back Shonn Greene to just 18 yards in week one and Bengals running back Cedric Benson to 78 yards in week two. Last season, the Ravens limited Mendenhall to a combined 131 yards in the two contests last season. Mendenhall, however, could find the holes that are opening up against the Ravens. After being embarrassed by Hillis, however, the rushing defense could be hungry and ready to stuff Mendenhall at all cost. The Ravens are led up front by Haloti Ngata, who has recorded fifteen tackles (eleven solo) with a sack and Terrell Suggs, who has recorded 18 tackles (12 solo) with 1.5 sacks through three weeks.
EDGE: Steelers, barely – Mendenhall is probably slight more talented than Shonn Green and Cedric Benson, but he must be ready for a defense looking to rebound from the Peyton Hillis express.
• Steelers pass vs. Ravens passing defense
In his return to the starting role, Batch will look to thwart a Ravens passing defense that ranks atop the league giving up just 116.7 yards through the air in three games with one touchdown. Although the Ravens have yet to record an interception, they have made opposing quarterbacks look poor early this season. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez managed just 74 yards on 10-of-21 passing in week one and Carson Palmer managed just 167 yards on 16-for-35 passing. Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace had the most efficient game against the Ravens, going 18-for-24 for 141 yards and a touchdown. Batch will need to remain focused on finding the seams to Mike Wallace and Hines Ward to be successful against this unit and prevent that first interception for the ball hawking defense. Last season, the Ravens held The Ravens secondary is led by safety Dawan Landry, who has 18 tackles (11 solo) and a forced fumble.
EDGE: Ravens – The Ravens will be looking to cover both Wallace and Ward with Landry and fellow defensive backs Chris Carr and Fabian Washington. Batch could be overhwlemed this week after facing a poor secondary against Tampa Bay.
• Special Teams
EDGE: Push. The two units are very similar, and therefore the matchup does not favor one side or the other.
Prediction: Both teams look forward to this meeting every year as they kick off the rivalry for the 19th year since Baltimore came into the league in 1996. Every game in the series has been memorable and the 2010 editions should be no different. Each team will be going up against a tough defense, so expect a defensive battle. Batch and Flacco will have to both navigate treacherous conditions as they attempt to find their receivers. The Ravens have more talented in their receiving corps than in years past. The Steelers, however, have been up to the challenge thus far in their pass defense. I see a low-scoring affair, with the slight edge to the Steelers.
Final Score: STEELERS 15, RAVENS 13
Join ESPN Insider today for the best sports analysis online, plus ESPN The Magazine!