Commentary

Ravens must jump-start season in Pittsburgh

Already 0-2 in the AFC North, the Ravens can't afford another division loss, Len Pasquarelli writes.

Originally Published: November 4, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Many of the NFL's top defensive players will be on hand Monday night in Pittsburgh for the Steelers-Ravens game (ESPN, 8:30 ET).

Some will even be in uniforms.

As part of the 75th anniversary of the franchise, the Steelers (5-2) will welcome back members of their all-time team, a Who's Who roster featuring Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicRay Lewis and the Ravens whipped the Steelers twice last season.

On the Baltimore sideline, players such as middle linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and defensive end Trevor Pryce won't exactly feel out of place. But as unfazed as they figure to be by the galaxy of past Steelers' stars, and by the potential of perhaps someday joining them in the football shrine, the Ravens know that what transpires Monday night is more about the future.

As in the rest of this season.

"We've got to get going, and now is the time to do it," said Reed, one of the league's most opportunistic defenders. "I mean, we're not to a do-or-die thing yet, but we're at a point in the season where we have to get on a roll."

The meeting with the Steelers marks the first of three straight divisional games for Baltimore. After Monday's game, the Ravens host the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10 and the suddenly resurgent Cleveland Browns on Nov. 18. The Ravens (4-3) have already lost to both and are 0-2 in the AFC North.

In finishing 13-3 last season and winning the AFC North for the first time since 2003, the Ravens lost just once in six division games.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has defeated the Bengals and Browns on the road, and a victory over the Ravens would provide the Steelers a healthy two-game advantage in the AFC North and an upper hand in potential tiebreaker scenarios. Not to mention the kind of divisional bragging rights Baltimore, and particularly its often bullying defense, prefers to possess.

Said Lewis: "When it says 'at Pittsburgh' on the schedule, that will always get your attention. But even more so now, because we can't let them get too away from us [in the division]."

Certainly the presence of the Ravens on their schedule hasn't escaped the notice of the Steelers, who were embarrassed by Baltimore last season. The Ravens won both meetings, by a combined score of 58-7. Rarely outslugged by anyone, the Steelers were physically dominated by the Ravens, who took great glee in pounding Pittsburgh's lines on both sides of the ball. Notably, the Ravens sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger 14 times, rendering him a human piñata.

There isn't a lot of love lost between the teams, and while first-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin hasn't gone out of his way to use last season's twin meltdowns as a rallying point, neither has he ignored them.

"[The Ravens are] still a formidable team," Tomlin said. "Still a challenge."

Indeed, Baltimore's defense features seven veterans who have played in the Pro Bowl at least once each. And even though the Ravens figure to be without starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, the Steelers know the encounter could escalate into the equivalent of a back-alley brawl. And they also know keeping Roethlisberger perpendicular is vital, which means identifying the well-camouflaged blitzes Ravens' defensive coordinator Rex Ryan conjures up.

"Before you can block them, you've got to figure out where they're coming from, and they do a great job of disguising their overloads," said Pittsburgh right offensive tackle Willie Colon, who is in his first season as a starter. "Recognition is crucial."

The Ravens have 15 sacks in seven games, down from the 21 they posted at the same point of the 2006 season. (Pittsburgh has 19.) Yet even with all the injuries Baltimore has suffered during the first half of the season, the Ravens statistically are second in the league's defensive rankings.

The only defense rated higher? The Pittsburgh unit, which has been impressively stingy in allowing only 256.9 yards per outing.

This means, as the Ravens' Scott pointed out, that the game probably will be the kind of physical battle the franchises have become accustomed to. And that should bring back fond memories for the Hall of Fame defenders in attendance.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.