Steelers, Ravens renew rivalry with playoff implications (Dec 10, 2017)

The Pittsburgh Steelers can punch their tickets to the postseason with a victory over the visiting Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night.

However, they will have to accomplish that goal without a couple of key players.

Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is suspended after a hard block on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict on Monday night. Linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury in that game and had to be hospitalized.

Pittsburgh (10-2) can clinch its third AFC North title in four seasons with a win or tie against Baltimore, which has won three straight. Getting a win is the main focus this week, not the fallout from the physical game against the Bengals.

“It’s a challenge on a short week, you know, playing on Monday Night and having another big division game coming up,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “But such is life in the AFC North. We embrace the challenges of playing in this division — how tough it is and the intentions of those we compete against. We’ll be energized by game time on Sunday. We’ll be excited about defending our turf against a very good football team.”

The Ravens also had a key loss when their top cornerback Jimmy Smith suffered a season-ending torn Achilles in the previous game against Lions. He was also suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

As a result, Baltimore will rely on Brandon Carr and rookie Marlon Humphrey to start on the outside against the Steelers’ Antonio Brown and likely Martavis Bryant. A pair of young cornerbacks, Jaylen Hill and Maurice Canady, will also get more opportunities. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste was promoted from the practice squad and could see some action.

“Our secondary is playing at a really high level,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “It will be tested in this game against their players and their scheme. So, we look forward to it. How we fare is yet to be determined. We’ll have to prove that on the field.”

The Steelers beat Baltimore 26-9 in the first meeting on Oct 1. With Ravens tackle Brandon Williams out of the lineup with a foot injury, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell amassed 144 yards with two touchdowns. Williams has bounced back from the injury and Baltimore’s run defense has been solid. So, Bell will be challenged to repeat that performance.

This game also has big playoff implications for the Ravens, who own the sixth and final spot in the AFC playoff race. Baltimore could improve its postseason seeding with a win.

“It’s a great rivalry,” Harbaugh said. “We love playing in it. It’s the most physical game we play every single year. It’s always tough coming out of the game in that you’re going to have a lot of bumps and bruises for sure. We have respect for them.”

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is looking forward to the challenge against the Steelers defense, which is ranked fourth overall in the NFL. In his last seven games at Heinz Field, Flacco completed 64.4 percent of his passes, averaging 241.7 yards per contest with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He is 4-3 over that stretch.

“This game is always awesome,” Flacco said. “It’s a ton of fun to go play up there. The more you go up there, the more you enjoy the atmosphere. It’s a good, old-fashioned football game that you love to be a part of.”

The Steelers lead all-time series with Baltimore, 23-20. However, the teams have split the last 22 meetings.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also appreciates the rivalry with Ravens, which is much different than the contentious meeting against the Bengals.

“The difference between this game and the Cincinnati game is these two teams, us and Baltimore, there’s always a respect involved in it,” Roethlisberger said. “You’re going to get hit really hard or you’re going to hit somebody really hard, but you’re going help them up and say, ‘Man, nice job.’ At the end of it, you’re going to shake hands and give the other guy a hug and say that was a lot of fun and can’t wait to do it next year. It’s a fun rivalry in the sense that there’s a lot of respect and there are two good football teams.”