OWINGS MILLS – Joe Flacco stood calmly in the pocket, enjoying the luxury of time to make his decisions as he scanned downfield to locate his targets.
It was a relatively rare occurrence for the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback considering who was charging toward the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens absolutely stonewalled the Pittsburgh Steelers’ formidable pass rushing tandem of outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley during a 17-14 win earlier this season at Heinz Field, shutting them out with no sacks.
The Steelers recorded just one sack for the day, and it was from nose guard Casey Hampton.
It was arguably one of the top performances by the offensive line in terms of pass protection in years.
“I don’t know if it was the best we’ve had all year, but it was up there with all the other ones that we’ve had that are pretty good,” Flacco said. “They did a great job, and this is a tough pass rush to do that against. Our guys went up there and fought really hard, and that’s why we were pretty successful during that game, is because it started up front and those guys did a good job pushing them off the ball and keeping them away from me.”
Flacco wound up throwing the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
He completed 24 of 37 passes for 256 yards.
“We just executed our game plan and did our best to get the job done,” right offensive tackle Marshal Yanda said. “They didn’t seem like they ran a lot of crazy stuff. They just relied on their guys to get there. They’ll probably change it up a little bit.
“It’s important every week to protect Joe. There’s no added weight. They’re really good pass rushers. You want to keep them away from Joe. It doesn’t matter if it’s Woodley and Harrison or anybody else.”
With the exception of the Baltimore game, Harrison and Woodley have been the scourge of quarterbacks all over the league.
They have combined for 16 ½ sacks, three interceptions, nine forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
“Woodley and Harrison, they’re two great players,” said left offensive tackle Michael Oher, who may be slowed by a sprained right knee. “Just those two guys alone, just taking care of those two guys, you’ve got to play lights out.”
A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison leads the Steelers with 10 sacks and is the first player in franchise history to record at least 10 sacks in three consecutive seasons.
He has forced six fumbles.
Harrison also gets outstanding leverage as a stockier than normal pass rusher at 6-foot, 242 pounds.
“Yeah, he’s a shorter guy,” Oher said. “He’s very much an impact player. You got to use technique and play extremely strong against him.”
A former Ravens castoff, Harrison plays the game with an extreme mean streak. He’s known for his aggressive, hard-hitting nature and has already been fined $125,000 by the NFL this year for illegal hits.
Harrison has complained that he’s being targeted by officials and league executives for penalties and hefty fines.
Perhaps wisely not wanting to incite Harrison, Flacco said he’s not worried about being borderline or illegal hits.
“I’m not worried about guys getting fines and hitting me illegally,” Flacco said. “I usually don’t even notice them until I go back and watch them on film. Hopefully, if he does hit us a little bit illegally, we get the penalty for it.
I don’t care if he gets fined or not. We want to get the penalty and have it help us out a little bit. If that happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
So far this season, Harrison has been punished for repeatedly for attacking quarterbacks like a heat-seeking missile.
He has been nailed by the league office for his hits on Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ($25,000), New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees ($20,000), Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi ($75,000) and Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young ($5,000).
“They’re usually pretty good football plays,” Flacco said. “He’s a good football player. He’s a vicious football player, and that’s what this game is about. It’s about being mean and getting after people, and that’s what he does.”
The Steelers are known for their innovative zone blitz schemes engineered by Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the smartest coaches in the league.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is convinced that the Steelers will change their approach this game to come up with something new after the Ravens solved their pass rush strategy during the first encounter.
“That seems like a long time ago, it really does,” Cameron said. “I’d like to say that it was something magic we did, and there really isn’t. The minute you think you’ve got protection solved in this business, forget it. These defensive coaches and defensive players are too good. They’re going to try to find a weakness, find a scheme to get you.
“Here’s what we do: We reinvent ourselves every week from a protection standpoint. We don’t take anything for granted, we cover all our bases, try to anticipate the things we haven’t seen, make sure our guys have answers. And then one of the keys to protection is separation by the receiver and great decision-making by Joe so the ball could come out quickly and on time. And against this defense, that’s easier said than done.”
The Steelers have 32 sacks this season for 202 yards of losses.
Besides Harrison and Woodley, the Steelers also create pressure with linebackers James Farrior (three sacks) and Lawrence Timmons (two sacks).
The NFL’s fifth-ranked defense has also intercepted 14 passes.
And the Steelers tend to always transform their defense once they become predictable.
So, the Ravens are anticipating something exotic from LeBeau.
“It seems like every time we play them, coach LeBeau throws a good change in there, a good twist to make you think a little bit,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Dick LeBeau is one of the most, if not the most respected defensive innovators in football. He had a lot to do with the fire zone package, and they still run it as well as anybody.
“His players really respond to and like him. He’s a guy that personally I’ve always had tremendous respect for. He’s a Hall of Fame coach, player and he’s highly respected.”
The Ravens would like nothing better than to duplicate their accomplishment from the first meeting.
“We did a lot of different things and they did a lot of different things,” Oher said. “Hopefully, we come out and both do the same thing we did last game.”