OWINGS MILLS — The last time the Baltimore Ravens squared off with the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Joe Flacco hit the dirt repeatedly.
Sacked five times during the Ravens’ 20-17 overtime win in late November, Flacco was under constant pressure as linebacker Lawrence Timmons harassed him for two of those sacks and forced one fumble.
Now, the Ravens may have to contend with the Steelers’ sixth-ranked defense without the services of offensive tackle Jared Gaither due to a toe injury that has kept him out of the past two games and every practice this week.
That means that blue-chip rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher would shift over to left tackle again and be largely responsible for blocking intimidating outside linebacker James Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“I have to do all my technique and work hard and know him inside-out,” Oher said. “It’s a big challenge. It’s a challenge I look forward to.
“He’s an explosive player. I’ve been watching him for a couple of years. He gets after it.”
Harrison leads the Steelers with 10 sacks and has forced four fumbles.
He’s one year removed from a career-high 16 sacks and an NFL-high seven forced fumbles.
Oher has fared well in the past against Robert Mathis and held up at times against Jared Allen.
“He’s had tough challenges every week,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of Oher. “It’s kind of a standard statement, but I think everybody’s coming ready to play.
“It’s a good defense, but we try to protect collectively. It’s not just tackles. It’s guards with tackles, tackles with tight ends, tight ends with fullbacks and our running and protection is all going to be done as a unit. We’re trying to minimize some of the one-on-one matchups.”
That’s a very difficult task against the Steelers who rank second in the NFL with 40 sacks.
Harrison, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (9 ½ sacks) and Timmons (six sacks) are all excellent pass rushers.
On the right side, Oniel Cousins, who has started and played capably the last two games, could be challenged by Woodley and Timmons.
“They’ve got a good team overall,” Cousins said. “They play 60 minutes hard. They’re tough. We have to play well the whole game. If we do that, we should be all right.
“The competition gets better every week. That’s how I approach it. I’m preparing myself to help us get this win.”
The key is making sure that Cousins and Oher and Gaither, if he plays, have some chip-blocking assistance from the backs and tight ends.
“These guys, Harrison and Woodley, their entire defensive unit, can create matchup challenges,” Cameron said. “It’s going to be a collective game-plan effort because these guys create one of, if not the, toughest challenges in the league, especially around the edge.”
RETURN GAME PUZZLE: Chris Carr returned punts at practice Thursday, a sign that he may handle that duty as usual on Sunday despite being elevated to the starting lineup at cornerback.
Carr could always play it safe with a lot of fair catches to avoid a potential injury that would hamper him on defense.
The big remaining question is who will handle kickoffs in light of kick returner Lardarius Webb being out for the season with a knee injury.
Reserve running back Jalen Parmele is one of the top candidates to replace him.
With Tom Zbikowski starting at safety in place of an injured Ed Reed and Mark Clayton coming off knee and hamstring injuries, the Ravens might have to call on a reserve to work in tandem with Carr.
Special-teams ace David Tyree has also returned kicks before.
Parmele is a compact runner who averaged 28 yards on 20 kickoff returns as a senior at Toledo, including an 82-yard touchdown return.
“It’s exciting,” Parmele said. “It’s one thing I took seriously whenever I caught kicks. If I’m back there, I’m ready to take the load. Right now, we’re just working in returners so we’ll see game time.
“It’s definitely something I pride on is returning kicks. I’d like to handle them all. You always work like you’re going to be playing a lot.”
Special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is remaining cognizant of the fact that several players are seeing more playing time in the base defense and won’t be as available on special teams.
“What you try to do is balance all of the players,” Rosburg said. “You try to balance the starters’ reps in various phases. You try to get your guys that are not starters, but are playing a lot in sub defenses perhaps or third-down packages for the offense, and you try to balance their reps. If the guys are not playing in any of that, then they need to do everything.
“That’s really the case. So, we’ve got some guys that are playing a lot on offense and a lot on defense and we’ll scale it back a little bit on what their special-teams role is. That’s going to be no different this week. It’s really been the same all year long.”
Rosburg was complimentary of Parmele’s work in practice.
INJURY UPDATE: Long snapper Matt Katula didn’t practice for the second day in a row due to an elbow injury, but emphasized that he’ll definitely play on Sunday.
Katula has tendinitis in his right elbow, and his wrist and forearm were wrapped up while practice squad rookie Nick Sundberg handled the snaps for the second consecutive day.
“Rest is just what the doctor ordered,” said Katula, who also got his snapping hand stepped on a few weeks ago. “The elbow started acting up, and we’re going to let the inflammation get out of there. I’ll be out there Sunday. We’re playing the Steelers.”
Rosburg was noncommittal on Katula’s status.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens until the weekend,” Rosburg said. “We have a guy that can practice and has been out at practice for a couple days and has helped us during practice. If it does become a situation where Matt can’t play, we’ve got one close at hand.”
Meanwhile, four starters didn’t practice.
Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (knee) was downgraded to not practicing after being limited Wednesday.
Gaither (toe), linebacker Tavares Gooden (groin) and free safety Ed Reed (groin) all didn’t practice for the second day in a row.
Clayton (knee, hamstring) was limited as well as safety K.J. Gerard (hamstring) and defensive tackle Kelly Talavou (knee).
Clayton reiterated that he expects to play.
“I’ve made a lot of progress,” Clayton said. “I’m looking forward to actually playing this week There’s a really good chance based on how I feel right now. There’s a very good chance. If I can go, I’ll be out there. If the knee isn’t acting right, I’ll be on the sidelines.”
Tight end Todd Heap (chest), center Matt Birk (neck), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (sprained right ankle) and wide receiver Kelley Washington (sprained ankle) were upgraded to full participation.
Wide receiver Justin Harper (foot) and tight end L.J. Smith (sprained ankle) participated fully again.
Cameron is hopeful that Clayton and Washington will return this week.
"We’ve still got a few more days of practice," he said. "The one thing is, we’ve got tough guys, guys that can play banged up. Mark Clayton gives everything he’s got, Kelley gives everything he’s got. It was nice getting Justin Harper in there.
“Thought he did some good things. We’re building some depth at the receiver position at the right time, and any number of guys could show up out there in this game. The decision hasn’t been made yet, but we’d sure like to have them."
TOUGH FOOTING: The swirling winds and rough footing on the sod makes Heinz Field the opposite of a kicker’s paradise, especially this time of year.
“I think the big problem with Heinz Field is the footing,” Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff said. “If you can get good footing, no matter where you play, you just hit the ball true. Whether it’s re-sodding or just packed-in mud, it’s kind of a mixed bag there. It will be an interesting experience for me playing in a game there so late in the season.”
Cundiff kicked in Pittsburgh earlier this season when he was with the Cleveland Browns with no problems.
QUICK HITS: Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who has ruled himself out with a knee injury, offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu (wrist) and cornerback Keenan Lewis didn’t practice. … The Steelers upgraded six players to full participation: defensive end Brett Keisel (neck), cornerback Anthony Madison (illness), running back Rashard Mendenhall (hip), running back Willie Parker (knee), and wide receivers Mike Wallace (knee) and Hines Ward (hamstring). … Reserve defensive back Cary Williams has made a fast impression on special teams, forcing a fumble against the Chicago Bears. “He’s done a very good job for us and has been very productive,” Rosburg said. “He plays very fast. He’s a long-limbed guy and can hold blockers off, and that comes to a real advantage when you’re playing gunner. We like him a lot.” Williams was a dangerous kickoff returner in college, but the Ravens have no plans to use him in that role. … The Ravens are bracing for potential onside kicks after the Steelers pulled one out of their hat during last week’s win over the Green Bay Packers. “We’ve been looking for onside kicks all year long, and the fact that they pulled one last week just reinforces you better be looking for it this week because they weren’t shy about it certainly in the situation they used it in,” Rosburg said. “At any point in time those things can come up.” … The Ravens are counting on getting a strong pass rush against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and are banking on outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ sprained knee cooperating. “Terrell is very, very important to us in this game,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “I think your top players have to really play at their top in games like this, and I know Terrell has worked all week with that in mind. He’s just been nicked-up. I think he’s getting back healthy now, and we’re really looking for him to play great football.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.