OWINGS MILLS – In an instant, a lot of pain can be inflicted on unsuspecting Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Traditionally, the vicious hits tend to come from two opposite directions when the Ravens are playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Besides star strong safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ defense is headlined by two aggressive, speedy outside linebackers in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison is a constant threat to attack a quarterback’s blind side. And Woodley has emerged as a pass rushing force on the right side with a formidable spin move and bull rush in his repertoire.
“At times we’ve done well against one guy, but then the other guy has hurt us,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s pretty hard to provide help on both sides of your pass protection and get anybody out. That’s the biggest thing.
“They are very powerful rushers, that’s the No. 1 thing. They really bring it and you’re not sure where they’re coming from, and they bring it with a lot of power.”
Harrison is an intimidating defender with a low center of gravity.
Two years ago, he led the NFL with 16 sacks and forced 10 fumbles.
This year, he leads the Steelers with three sacks to go with 20 tackles and a forced fumble.
When Flacco was a rookie, Harrison’s sack and forced fumble was returned for a touchdown by Woodley.
“It’s tough,” said left tackle Michael Oher, who draws the assignment of blocking Harrison. “You’ve got two guys that have the ability to dominate games. You’ve got to come to play and bring your ‘A’ game every snap. They’re pretty good, so you have to be ready to perform.”
Woodley tormented the Ravens last December during a 23-20 loss at Heinz Field.
He sacked Flacco twice on consecutive plays, bursting past befuddled offensive tackle Oniel Cousins.
Over the course of seven offensive plays, Flacco was sacked three times.
Woodley registered three of the Steelers’ nine sacks against Baltimore last season.
The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder is big, strong and quick.
“If you get high, he’s going to get underneath you and jack you into the quarterback,” said right offensive tackle Marshal Yanda, who hasn’t been primarily responsible for blocking Woodley since his rookie season. “You’ve got to identify his rush and play your butt off. He’s one of the best.”
The Pro Bowl outside linebacker has two sacks, one interception and a forced fumble this year.
Last season, Woodley posted a career-high 13 ½ sacks and 84 tackles. He owns an NFL record with two sacks in each of his four playoff games.
His trademark spin move is especially dangerous.
“You’ve got to focus on an aiming point,” Yanda said. “You can’t overset on him. If he feels you’re oversetting, he’s going to spin inside or rip inside. He’s a good football player.
“He doesn’t predetermine moves. He makes his moves off what you do. You’ve got to watch him close.”
The Steelers rarely flop Harrison and Woodley.
Virtually every play, the relentless tandem are sent barreling toward the quarterback by crafty defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
“I think they are two of the best outside linebackers in the league,” Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “Those guys have been extremely productive the last couple of years, and they are both really physical, and I’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
It helps the Steelers’ cause that they’ve got gritty defensive end Aaron Smith back on the left side this year after he spent last season on injured reserve.
Smith is extremely difficult to budge.
“He’s a great inside guy,” Yanda said. “Having him back has definitely helped them out a bunch. They’re playing the way they used to play a couple of years ago.”
In Flacco’s three trips to Pittsburgh, he has yet to win a game.
He’s also been sacked a dozen times, uncorked four interceptions and hasn’t completed half of his passes, a 48.8 percentage.
“We’ve played up there three times, and we’ve played pretty good,” Flacco said. “Besides the playoff game, we’ve played really good up there. We just haven’t come out with wins. We’ve got to finish games, and this is going to be another good game, and we’ll have to finish it in the fourth quarter when it comes down to the time to do that.”
Woodley and Harrison have thrived in the fourth quarter, though.
And they combined for 23 ½ sacks last season, and 51 sacks over the past two seasons.
Some chip-blocking assistance and maximum protection schemes will probably be in order Sunday.
“Obviously, two of the best in the league,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “You come up with what you think is going to be a sound plan. Sometimes you double them, sometimes you single them, sometimes you triple them. And then you rely on the trust between the quarterback and the receivers to get the ball out quickly.”