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Damon Hack
September 05, 2011
Can they beat Pittsburgh when it counts? It's all that matters
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September 05, 2011

2 Baltimore Ravens

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

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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.

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