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NFL Preview - Baltimore (2-1) at Pittsburgh (3-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Steelers have so far been able to pass every test to come their way during Ben Roethlisberger's time away from the team.
The biggest challenge may be yet to come, however.
Pittsburgh will put its unbeaten record on the line this Sunday against the formidable Baltimore Ravens in an AFC North grudge match from Heinz Field that could go a long way towards determining the division's titleholder by season's end.
While the Steelers have had to alter their game plan as Roethlisberger serves his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, the playmaking quarterback's absence hasn't stopped the team from winning games. Pittsburgh is one of only three clubs off to a 3-0 start in 2010 and enters Sunday's showdown a game up on both the Ravens and defending AFC North champion Cincinnati in the standings.
The Steelers have used both old (Charlie Batch) and relatively new (Dennis Dixon) faces to hold down the fort as Roethlisberger carries out his sentence, with a still-mighty defense and a resurgent running game providing the formula for success.
Pittsburgh has yielded a league-low 33 points and forced an NFL-best 10 turnovers through the first three weeks, while ranking near the top in sacks (10) and rushing defense (59.7 ypg) as well. The Steelers have been nearly as dominant running the football, having produced an average of 150 yards per game on the ground in the season's early stages.
Top running back Rashard Mendenhall piled up 143 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in last week's 38-13 road rout of Tampa Bay, with the defense doing its part as well by generating four sacks and a pair of takeaways, including a 79-yard interception return for a score by lineman Brett Keisel.
Batch also made a significant contribution in his first start since 2007, with the 35-year-old completing 12-of-17 passes and matching a career-best with three touchdown strikes subbing for an injured Dixon. The effort earned the 12th-year veteran the nod for Sunday's tilt, in which Pittsburgh will be shooting for its first 4-0 beginning since the franchise claimed its fourth Super Bowl championship in 1979.
Defense has been Baltimore's calling card over the season's first month as well. The Ravens have given up the fewest yards in the league (244.3 ypg) thus far and did not yield a touchdown in either of their initial two games, a hard-earned 10-9 victory on the road over the New York Jets in Week 1 and a disappointing 15-10 loss at Cincinnati on September 19.
The unit wasn't at its best in last weekend's tussle with division-member Cleveland, but Baltimore was able to compensate with an improved showing on the offensive side to come through with a 24-17 triumph over a determined Browns squad.
Quarterback Joe Flacco shook off a four-interception disaster in the Cincinnati loss with a near-flawless game against Cleveland, with the strong- armed triggerman hitting on a sharp 22-of-31 throws for 262 yards and connecting with new wide receiver Anquan Boldin for three touchdowns. The offseason pickup burned the Browns for 142 yards on eight catches on the day.
Boldin will get his first taste of a heated rivalry that's been extremely competitive in recent years, with the past four regular-season meetings having been decided by four points or less.
The Steelers hold a 17-11 edge in the all-time regular season series with the Ravens, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Ravens were 20-17 overtime winners when the teams met in Baltimore in Week 12, and Pittsburgh returned the favor with a 23-20 win at Heinz Field in Week 16. The Steelers swept the 2008 home-and-home, and the Ravens last won in Pittsburgh during the 2006 regular season.
Pittsburgh is 2-0 against Baltimore in the postseason all-time. In addition to a 23-14 win for the Steelers in the 2008 AFC Championship, Pittsburgh also earned a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field.
Including playoffs, the Ravens are 0-4 in Pittsburgh since winning there in 2006.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 5-2 against the Ravens in his career, while Baltimore's John Harbaugh is 1-4 against both Tomlin and Pittsburgh as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
After putting forth highly shaky outings against a pair of 2009 playoff participants in the Jets and Bengals, Flacco (664 passing yards, 4 TD, 5 INT) bounced back with a strong and poised display against the winless Browns. The Ravens are going to need their field general to be on point again this week, as the team's usually potent rushing attack has yet to get untracked and won't have invaluable back Ray Rice (210 rushing yards, 10 receptions) at 100 percent for Sunday's clash due to a bruised right knee sustained in Week 3. While the 2009 Pro Bowler doesn't seem likely to miss the game, he may have to share more of the workload with veteran plodder Willis McGahee (37 rushing yards, 1 TD). Baltimore has averaged a modest 89 yards per game (24th overall) on the ground and just 3.1 yards per rush attempt, the fourth-worst mark in the league, in the early going. One Raven who has met expectations is Boldin (20 receptions, 287 yards, 3 TD), who's eclipsed 100 receiving yards in two of the first three contests and has been every bit the No. 1 target the team has been seeking for years. Aging counterpart Derrick Mason (7 receptions) is off to a slow start, however, leaving trusty tight end Todd Heap (14 receptions) as Flacco's secondary option when looking downfield. Rice's status will have an impact on the passing game as well, as he's one of the league's better receiving backs.
It's going to be a challenge for the Ravens to solve their issues running the football against a Pittsburgh defense that's permitting a stingy 2.6 yards per rush this season and limited Tennessee game-breaker Chris Johnson to a harmless 34 yards on 16 totes two weeks back. Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (33 tackles, 1 sack) and James Farrior (16 tackles) have been terrific at the point of attack, and both get plenty of room to operate playing behind space-eating nose tackle Casey Hampton. The Steelers also possess an excellent run-stopping safety in five-time Pro Bowl honoree Troy Polamalu (15 tackles, 2 PD), who's snared two interceptions as well from his rover's spot in the first three games. If Pittsburgh is once again able to neutralize the run, it'll be better equipped to unleash the elite pass-rushing duo of outside linebackers James Harrison (23 tackles, 3 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (11 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) on Flacco, who's had his problems when facing heavy pressure this year.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
No team has been more run-heavy this season than the Steelers, hardly a surprise considering their limitations at the quarterback position. Roethlisberger's exile has forced Pittsburgh to revert back to a physical smash-mouth approach on offense, and the results have justified the change in philosophy. Mendenhall (332 rushing yards, 2 TD, 3 receptions) is averaging better than 110 yards a game and five yards per attempt as the feature back, and the third year pro's presence and ability has lured teams to stack the box in an attempt to slow him down. Batch (211 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) made the Buccaneers pay for that tactic last week, hooking up with speedy wideout Mike Wallace (7 receptions, 2 TD) for a pair of long touchdowns that helped achieve a semblance of balance. Pittsburgh doesn't want to air it out much, especially with the pass protection having been suspect in recent weeks, but Batch will be looking mainly in the direction of venerable wide receiver Hines Ward (10 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Heath Miller (8 receptions) when he does decide to pass.
Baltimore's goal on defense will be to keep Mendenhall in check and force Batch to throw on a secondary that's been airtight this season, but the Ravens will need to shore up their tackling and containment responsibilities after having some trouble stopping the run last week. The team allowed 173 rushing yards to the Browns, with bruiser Peyton Hillis ripping off a career-best 144 yards and a score on 22 carries. There's more than enough talent among the front seven to avoid a repeat, however. Leading tackler and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis (21 tackles, 1 sack) headlines a group that contains plenty of interior beef in the form of linemen Haloti Ngata (15 tackles, 1 sack), Kelly Gregg (13 tackles) and 350-pound newcomer Terrence Cody, with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (18 tackles, 1.5 sacks) a disruptive force coming off the edge. The backfield hasn't suffered with the injury to perennial All-Pro safety Ed Reed, as Baltimore has given up a league-low 116.7 passing yards per game and only one touchdown through the air. The Ravens have yet to come up with an interception this year, however.
With the Steelers sporting the most productive fantasy defense at the moment, and the Ravens getting to face a rather one-dimensional offense led by a third-string quarterback, both teams get an absolute thumbs-up for this week. Mendenhall's early exploits and prominent role make him a must-play running back as well, but Rice owners may want to consider sitting the usual mainstay this time around with him hobbling and going up against a top-notch run defense. McGahee actually could be worth a flier as a flex play, but only if Rice lands on the inactive list. Boldin is the one no-brainer choice among Ravens, with Heap offering some upside as a bye-week fill-in at tight end. Neither quarterback is a recommended selection, and Batch's insertion limits the value of Ward, Miller and Wallace, who won't repeat last week's big game against a tough Baltimore secondary.
This is an early statement game for both teams, as another win over a quality foe would lend further credence to Pittsburgh's viability as a top contender in the AFC and the Ravens certainly don't want to fall two games behind their bitter rival in the division standings. With a defense equipped to match the Steelers yard-for-yard and Pittsburgh's still uneasy situation at quarterback, Baltimore is fully capable of emerging victorious -- as long as it can hold onto the football. That's a task easier said than done against the opportunistic Steelers, who stand a good chance of winning the turnover battle and are playing with a massive chip on their shoulder. Combine that attitude with a distinct home-field advantage, and you've got a recipe for another notice-serving victory for Tomlin's troops.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 16, Ravens 10
10/01 15:08:35 ET