Can they beat Pittsburgh when it counts? It's all that matters

Terrell Suggs was sitting at his locker during training camp, going through a mental checklist of the teams he views as the league's toughest. "Hands down, the three most physical teams are us, the Jets—now that they have Rex [Ryan]—and that team from Pennsylvania," the ninth-year linebacker said.

The Steelers? "It's forbidden to say their name around here," Suggs responded. "It's an unspoken word."

The Ravens don't have to speak the name to know they must find a way to get past their bitter division rivals. Over the last decade the two AFC North powers have engaged in a volatile struggle from which Pittsburgh has emerged victorious when it mattered most. Since Baltimore won Super Bowl XXXV following the 2000 season, the Steelers have eliminated the Ravens from the playoffs three times—most recently in 2008 and 2010, seasons in which Pittsburgh advanced to the Super Bowl.

But even as the players have traded thunderous hits on the field, the franchises have built rosters that closely resemble one another. "Look at their outside rushers and our outside rushers, our defensive tackle, their defensive tackle, their All-Pro safety, our All-Pro safety," Suggs says. "It's identical."

If there has been a difference, however slight, in these playoff brawls, it's often been at quarterback, where Joe Flacco's performances have lagged behind those of Ben Roethlisberger (who, to be fair, is three years older and has been in the league four years longer). It's a tough metric for Flacco, but the one he'll be judged by for as long as the two teams are so evenly matched.

Facing Pittsburgh in the AFC title game as a rookie, Flacco completed just 13 of 30 passes while throwing three interceptions. In last season's divisional playoff Baltimore led 21--7 at the half, but in the second half Flacco threw a pick and lost a fumble, leading to 10 Pittsburgh points. There were other culprits in the Ravens' 31--24 loss (running back Ray Rice lost a fumble, now departed wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a key fourth-down pass), but Flacco has taken the bulk of the blame. As he knows, it's the price of playing the position.

Flacco hasn't shied away from his responsibility, and he sticks up for his offense even though it dipped in production in his third season, from 13th in total yards and ninth in points in '09 to 22nd and 16th, respectively. "The bottom line is, we feel like [the offense] accounts for wins on this football team," says Flacco, 26, who had career highs in yards, touchdowns and passer rating in 2010. "Statistically it might not always say it, but we stepped up last year and won a lot of games. We also know we have to continue to improve."

After adding 10 pounds to his 6'6" frame during the off-season, Flacco now weighs 244, and according to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, he began training camp sharper than ever. "I haven't flinched on anything I've believed about Joe Flacco since the first day I saw him," says Cameron, who like Flacco is entering his fourth year in Baltimore. "He's a great quarterback, and he's going to continue to grow."

To that end the Ravens' staff is giving Flacco more say in the offense, something the quarterback says is a function of age and comfort. "It doesn't mean you always get what you want," Flacco says, "but you have an opinion. We also have a lot of young guys, and they need somebody on that field to direct them, somebody other than a coach sometimes. That's a big job for me."

Indeed, Flacco must work with an overhauled receiving corps after Baltimore released veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap (101 receptions between them), moves the quarterback admits "shocked" him. To pair with Anquan Boldin, who had a middling first season in Baltimore, Lee Evans arrives in a trade after seven seasons in Buffalo, where he was productive but never quite an elite pass catcher. More troubling? No other wideout on the Ravens roster had more than one NFL catch last year.

Baltimore did sign a player expressly built for the rivalry with "that team from Pennsylvania": former Houston fullback Vonta Leach, who played against the Ravens in a wild Monday Night game last year that Baltimore won in overtime. Stepping into the Ravens-Steelers blood feud, Leach says there's no other place he'd rather. "It is very nasty," he says.

As for his job description in Baltimore, he puts it in the simplest terms: "Hit linebackers in the mouth."

He'll fit right in.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 22

QB JOE FLACCO

ATT 489

COMP 306

PCT 62.6

YARDS 3,622

YD/ATT 7.41

TD 25

INT 10

RATING 93.6

RB RAY RICE

ATT 307

YARDS 1,220

REC 63

TTD 6

FB VONTA LEACH

ATT 0

YARDS 0

REC 8

TTD 0

WR ANQUAN BOLDIN

REC 64

YARDS 837

AVG 13.1

TTD 7

WR LEE EVANS

REC 37

YARDS 578

AVG 15.6

TTD 4

TE ED DICKSON

REC 11

YARDS 152

AVG 13.8

TTD 1

LT MICHAEL OHER

G 16

SACKS 7

HOLD 2

FALSE 8

LG BEN GRUBBS

G 16

SACKS 1½

HOLD 0

FALSE 2

C MATT BIRK

G 16

SACKS 4½

HOLD 0

FALSE 2

RG MARSHAL YANDA

G 16

SACKS 6¼

HOLD 0

FALSE 4

RT JAH REID (R)

G 14

STARTS 14

1

RB RICKY WILLIAMS

ATT 159

YARDS 673

REC 19

TTD 3

WR TORREY SMITH (R)

REC 67

YARDS 1,055

AVG 15.7

TTD 12

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 10

DE CORY REDDING

TACKLES 42

SACKS 3

INT 1

NT TERRENCE CODY

TACKLES 13

SACKS 0

INT 0

DT HALOTI NGATA

TACKLES 63

SACKS 5½

INT 0

LB JARRET JOHNSON

TACKLES 73

SACKS 1½

INT 0

LB RAY LEWIS

TACKLES 139

SACKS 2

INT 2

LB JAMEEL MCCLAIN

TACKLES 69

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB TERRELL SUGGS

TACKLES 68

SACKS 11

INT 0

CB DOMONIQUE FOXWORTH*

TACKLES 53

SACKS 0

INT 4

SS BERNARD POLLARD

TACKLES 112

SACKS 2½

INT 0

FS ED REED

TACKLES 37

SACKS 0

INT 8

CB JIMMY SMITH (R)

TACKLES 70

SACKS 0

INT 0

DB CHRIS CARR

TACKLES 61

SACKS 0

INT 2

SPECIALISTS

K BILLY CUNDIFF

FG 26

FGA 29

XP 39

PTS 117

P SAM KOCH

PUNTS 81

GROSS 43.6

NET 39.2

*2009 stats

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 12--4

September

11 Pittsburgh

18 at Tennessee

25 at St. Louis

October

2 N.Y. Jets

9 BYE

16 Houston

24 at Jacksonville (Mon)

30 Arizona

November

6 at Pittsburgh

13 at Seattle

20 Cincinnati

24 San Francisco (Thu)

December

4 at Cleveland

11 Indianapolis

18 at San Diego

24 Cleveland (Sat)

January

1 at Cincinnati

COACH: JOHN HARBAUGH

AGE: 48

FOURTH SEASON WITH THE RAVENS (32--16)

A fiery coach who has reached the playoffs in each of his three years, Harbaugh got a three-year contract extension in February. In the off-season he promoted secondary coach Chuck Pagano to defensive coordinator to reinvigorate a unit that slipped to 10th in the NFL, its lowest ranking since 2002, and had just 27 sacks, the fewest since the franchise came to Baltimore in 1996.

SPOTLIGHT

ANQUAN BOLDIN, Wide receiver

In his seven seasons with the Cardinals before coming to Baltimore as a highly prized free agent, Boldin averaged 83.7 catches and set the record for fastest player to reach 400 career receptions (he did it in 67 games). But last season he caught just 64 passes, the fewest since he had 56 in 10 games in 2004. Those who expected instant chemistry between Boldin and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco were disappointed. "When I played in Arizona with Kurt [Warner], a lot of people thought it just happened overnight," the 6'1", 217-pound Boldin says. "That took time, long days after practice, talking, watching film. When you play in a system for a while and really learn it, that's when you're able to put a little of yourself in it. I think we're at that point now." Flacco agrees: "We're seeing eye to eye, and I feel comfortable with him this year, definitely more than I did last year at this time."

Boldin, 30, admits it's been challenging to go from a Cardinals team known for racking up points pinball-style to a Baltimore franchise whose hallmark is rugged defense. Now, more at ease in the offense, and with deep threat Lee Evans arriving to stretch the field, Boldin thinks that image is about to change. "When guys go against us," Boldin says, "I want teams to say that our offense is something you have to deal with."

PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (HARBAUGH) PHOTOFRED VUICH (FLACCO)FLAC ATTACK In his fourth season, Flacco will have more say in the offense, a sign of the Ravens' belief in his leadership as he molds a remade receiving corps. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (BOLDIN)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)