The AFC North rivals meet Sunday night in Baltimore with neither in first place, both searching for answers and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) expected to sit out for the Steelers after suffering his fourth concussion since 2006.
Pittsburgh (6-4) beat Baltimore (5-5) three times in 2008 en route to its record sixth Super Bowl title, and its 23-14 win in the AFC title game may have been the most bruising encounter of the bunch. The defensive battle saw each team punt seven times, with the Steelers putting the game out of reach with Troy Polamalu’s(notes) 40-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:24 left.
Both teams trail North leader Cincinnati, which is 7-3. These clubs meet twice in the next five weeks and the stakes are completely different less than 10 months since they last played.
That doesn’t change anyone’s expectation of a hard-hitting, tightly contested matchup.
Baltimore failed to score an offensive touchdown for the second straight game last Sunday, falling 17-15 to unbeaten Indianapolis. Pittsburgh’s loss last Sunday was much more surprising, blowing a 10-point lead in a 27-24 overtime defeat to a Kansas City team which entered with a 2-7 record.
The Steelers’ second consecutive loss and the Ravens’ fourth in six games helped jumble the AFC playoff picture, and has added fuel to this edition of the rivalry.
“You know it’s fireworks every time we play these guys, we’re excited about preparing for them,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You know they’re a similar team that we remember competing against. They can say similar things that we’re saying, that they’re a 5-5 team and not happy with where they are.”
Tomlin expected to start Roethlisberger after the quarterback’s head inadvertently struck the knee of the Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson while he was being dropped for a 1-yard loss in overtime last week. Roethlisberger practiced all week, but the Steelers said Saturday that he will likely miss this game.
It’s unlikely Polamalu will play, although he hasn’t been ruled out after missing last week’s loss with his second knee injury of the season. Pittsburgh is 2-3 without him, and the five-time Pro Bowl safety saw action for only a few plays in an 18-12 loss to the Bengals on Nov. 15.
The Ravens also have a big injury concern on defense. It’s unclear if three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs(notes) will return after sitting out last week, missing his first NFL game in seven years due to a sprained knee.
The Steelers are concerned with their poor special teams play. They have allowed an NFL-high four kick-return touchdowns in their last five games after surrendering one on the opening kickoff last week.
Since 1994, the only other team to allow as many kickoff-return scores in a single season was the Minnesota Vikings, who gave up four in 1998.
“Five touchdowns on special teams coupled with 25th in the league in turnover ratio will make a team that’s capable of moving the ball and stopping people 6-4,” Tomlin said.
Baltimore is seeking to revive a struggling offense that has produced one touchdown in the last three games. Joe Flacco(notes) has gone three straight games without a touchdown pass for the first time in his career after throwing for 256 yards - 142 to Derrick Mason(notes) - in last week’s loss.
Getting untracked against the Steelers’ top-ranked defense won’t be easy for the Ravens, whose losses have all come against current division leaders.
“These losses have been against teams that are quality football teams,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Call them elite football teams in the league, but we aspire to that.”
Flacco had one touchdown, five interceptions and a 44.9 completion percentage while getting sacked 10 times in the three losses to Pittsburgh last season.
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