1. Will Joe Flacco break out of his slump against the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Heading into tonight’s AFC North showdown against the reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers (6-4), the Ravens (5-5) need their quarterback to reverse his recent struggles against Pittsburgh. Flacco has completed just 41 percent of his throws and has five interceptions during the past two meetings. In those games, Flacco had a 22.2 and an 18.2 passer rating. And he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass during the past three games heading into this pivotal contest. For the Ravens to win, they’ll need Flacco to come up big against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Flacco struggled throwing over the middle against the Indianapolis Colts, completing just one of five passes with an interception.
2. What’s going on with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs?
Roethlisberger is out after suffering a concussion last week in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens are extremely unlikely to have Suggs in uniform, let alone on the field. Suggs has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee and could miss another week or two. He’s still limping noticeably. The Ravens will need to generate a pass rush against a so-so offensive line without him. The Steelers have allowed 30 sacks, the third-most in the league.
3. Can the Ravens get off to a better start?
Not lately. They haven’t scored a first-half offensive touchdown during the past six games. The Steelers’ stingy defense will be missing strong safety Troy Polamalu, but still has a lot of top-notch playmakers with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens need to get into a rhythm, and the no-huddle offense could provide a spark.
4. Will the Ravens contain wide receiver Santonio Holmes?
As hated as Hines Ward is for his borderline downfield blocking, the Steelers’ wide receiver the Ravens should really dread is Holmes. The Super Bowl Most Valuable Player has scored six touchdowns against Baltimore over the past five games, scoring in each meeting. That includes touchdown catches from 65, 59 and 38 yards.
5. Will rookie Lardarius Webb exploit the Steelers’ shoddy kickoff coverage?
Webb has already run back a kickoff for a touchdown this season, and the Steelers have given up four touchdowns this season on kickoff returns. They have already tied the NFL record established 11 years ago.
Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. Pittsburgh Steelers OLB James Harrison
Flacco hasn’t traditionally excelled against the Steelers. During his past two games against Pittsburgh, Flacco has thrown five interceptions and completed 41 percent of his throws. And he hasn’t thrown a touchdown over the past three games, the longest stretch of his two-year career. Flacco’s task is usually made much tougher by Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison is a fierce edge rusher who already has 10 sacks this year. He registered 2 1/2 sacks during Flacco’s first game against Pittsburgh last season, but none in the subsequent meeting in Baltimore and at Heinz Field in the AFC championship game. Flacco will need to speed up his internal clock against Harrison, who combines power, speed and moves to apply heat to quarterbacks. It’s a tough matchup for left tackle Jared Gaither.
Baltimore Ravens CB Lardarius Webb vs. Pittsburgh Steelers WR Santonio Holmes
It will be a classic case of speed vs. speed whenever Webb is paired opposite Holmes. Both are extremely fast. Holmes, though, has a considerable edge in experience against the rookie who’s expected to make his first NFL start. Holmes caught the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl and was named the Most Valuable Player. Holmes has caught 50 passes for 764 yards and one touchdown this year, averaging 15.3 yards per reception. He has a strong history against Baltimore, though. Over the past five games against the Ravens, he has scored at least one touchdown in all five meetings with a total of six touchdowns. That includes two touchdowns 50 yards or longer. Webb has proven to be a quick study during his rookie season since being drafted in the third round this spring.
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason
1. On the Ravens’ outlook: "Well, we should have tightened up a long time ago. But obviously, November, December is when teams separate themselves, and you start to make that playoff push. And it’s very imperative for us as a team to win every game from here on out. We don’t want to have to sit and wait. I think our last game is in January, somewhere around there, the third of January, and we don’t want to have to sit and wait as we’re flying back from Oakland to see if we made the playoffs or not.
"So, in order for that to happen, we need to take care of business for the next six games, and that means winning them. I’m not guaranteeing anything, but as a team, we are in a situation where every game is a must-win if we ultimately want to get to where we want to go, and that’s the Super Bowl.”
2. On the offensive struggles: "What do we have to do different? Score points. Only way to change the situation is to score points. There is no magic, there is no whatever, magical play. There is no spell that we can put upon that. We just need to go out there and score, and what that entails is us doing what we need to do on offense – staying on the field, converting on third down and scoring in the red zone when we have an opportunity to score."
3. On the inconsistencies: "It’s been up and down. Let’s keep it real, it’s been up and down. I’m not going to put any more pressure on myself than what it needs to be. I’ve been in this game long enough to say that if you press, then bad things happen.
"So, I’m going to continue to stick to what I’ve been doing. I kind of got away from some things. I’ve got to go back to basics and trust in my technique and trust in what I’m doing, and I’ll go out there and have the game that I’m supposed to have."
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward
1. On what it would mean to win four in a row over Baltimore: "“It would mean a great deal. We understand what is at stake. Last year, we had some great battles. We snuck down there and got a chance to win, to steal one from you guys. Then playing in the AFC Championship game, which was a hard-fought battle.
"We knew to beat Baltimore three times and to have that last drive that we had in Baltimore, I think that helped propel us to win the Super Bowl the way we did. To beat them four straight times, it would be great for our team, for the players who took part in that and for our organization.”
2. On his rivalry with the Ravens: "“I would like to hit them just as much as they would like to hit me. One thing about this game, win, lose, or draw, you will come out of this game hurting. That’s just always been the rivalry itself. Just as much as they want to hit me, the feeling is mutual.
"But off the field, Ed Reed is one of the better safeties in the league. Ray Lewis and I, we’ve done some promotional stuff off the field. They’re still a great group of guys over there. But on the field, we’re just trying to do whatever it takes to win the ballgame and help our club win.”
3. On being voted the dirtiest player in the league in a Sports Illustrated players’ poll: “I’m pretty sure they voted three or four times. I don’t really resent it; I look at it as an honor. What wide receiver in history has been known as the dirtiest player in the league? For me, I don’t want people who don’t know anything about football and the first thing they read is ‘the dirtiest player’ to get a misconception of me personally as a human being.
"When I go across the middle, those guys aren’t going to try to tackle me softly. They’re trying to rip my head off. Why should I wait around for that to happen? I’m not going to do that. That’s not how I play this game. To be the dirtiest player in this league, it is actually kind of cool to win it, because last time I came in second. I guess that’s a big honor.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.