Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Saturday, Jan. 4, 2015
8:15 p.m.; NBC
SERIES HISTORY: Steelers lead, 15-7 (3-0 postseason). The teams have split the regular season series the past three years after a Baltimore sweep in 2011.
LAST MEETING: Steelers 43, Ravens 23, Nov. 2, 2014, Heinz Field: QB Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in a second consecutive game and the Steelers earned a measure of revenge for their 26-6 loss on Sept. 11 in Baltimore. WR Antonio Brown was on the receiving end of 11 Roethlisberger passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. Rookie WR Martavis Bryant had two touchdown catches. The Steelers were 3-for-3 in the red zone and converted 43 percent of their third downs (6-for-14).
LAST WEEK: The Steelers clinched the AFC North Division championship with a 27-17 victory over the Bengals last Sunday night at Heinz. RB Le'Veon Bell left the game in the third quarter (hyper-extended knee). The Ravens rallied from a 10-3 deficit with 17 fourth-quarter points and beat the Browns, 20-10, last Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. That win, coupled with San Diego's loss at Kansas City, sent the Ravens to the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL**: They'll attempt to run it and throw it deep. It's what they do.
RB Justin Forsett did the bulk of the running in his breakthrough regular season that saw the seventh-year pro establish career highs with 1,266 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Forsett set a franchise record with 17 runs of 20-plus yards (Jamal Lewis had 16 in 2000) and the Ravens had an NFL-best 24 of those overall. RB Bernard Pierce had 96 yards on the ground in the first meeting against the Steelers and Forsett had 56 in the first encounter and 38 in the second. Baltimore has a run-the-ball mentality and averaged 4.1 yards on 54 carries against the Steelers this season.
QB Joe Flacco was sacked just 19 times (Baltimore was No. 2 in sacks allowed behind Denver's 17), threw a career-high touchdown passes and came within 14 yards of his first 4,000-yard season. His most explosive target is WR Torrey Smith (11 receiving touchdowns, 10 of which have been scored over the last 11 games). His 30 career touchdown receptions have come from an average of 22.3 yards away. WR Steve Smith is No. 14 all-time with 13,262 receiving yards (1,065 this season). The Ravens set franchise records with 5,938 total net yards and with 409 points this season.
RT Rick Wagner (15 starts) was placed on the reserve/injured list on Dec. 23. LT Eugene Monroe (11 starts) also didn't play in the regular-season finale against Cleveland.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: They'll look to attack a Baltimore secondary that has been battling injuries and/or inconsistency all season.
Seven different players started at cornerback for the Ravens this season, and they've had 12 different cornerbacks on the 53-man roster in 2014. Of the 18 players on the Ravens' reserve/injured list, six are defensive backs (five cornerbacks, one safety). Baltimore's best defense against the pass, it seems, is preventing passes from being thrown. The Ravens finished tied for No. 2 in sacks (49) and the outside linebacker tandem of Elvis Dumervil (17) and Terrell (12) combined for 29 of those.
Baltimore hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 26 consecutive games, the NFL's longest active streak (Browns RB Terrance West had 94 on 18 carries). And the Ravens get NT Haloti Ngata back from his four-game suspension this week. Bell had two shots at the Ravens in the regular season and managed 79 yards on 21 carries. The Ravens rank second in the NFL in red zone defense by allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 42.6 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. They are third in goal-to-go defense by allowing touchdowns 55.2 percent of the time. Despite all the injuries in the secondary, the Ravens gave up just 30 touchdowns (fourth-fewest in the league) and allowed an average of 18.9 points per game (sixth-best in the NFL).
SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Brown had a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Bengals. A fake-punt attempt by the Steelers didn't work out nearly as well (P Brad Wing's pass was intercepted). WR Jacoby Jones has five touchdowns on returns, including a 108-yard kickoff return against the Steelers on Nov. 2. PK Justin Tucker is 95-for-106 on field goals in his career, which at 89.6 percent currently is No. 1 in NFL history, and he has made 63 of his last 67 attempts under 55 yards.
THE X-FACTOR: What can RB Ben Tate – signed this week in the wake of Bell's injury – do for the Steelers? And how will the Steelers otherwise compensate for Bell's franchise-record 2,215 yards from scrimmage in the event he doesn't play or isn't effective in the wake of his injury?
THEY SAID IT: "We meet extra, spending more time on third down and red zone. We have to do that now. Our communication isn't what it could be, no winks and nods to each other that we would all understand. We have to work more on it, talk more. And we have to keep the outside noise outside and play for each other." – Ravens CB Lardarius Webb on Baltimore's injury-ravaged secondary.
"Here we go again. This is probably what the NFL wanted more than anything, to see these two AFC North teams go at it. I like to think we're still moving up, but I'm sure they'll say the same thing about themselves." – Roethlisberger on playing the Ravens in the playoffs.