Ravens vs. Steelers: New look teams carry same old grudge

Larry French

Two teams usually battling for the top of the AFC North find themselves in a must-win game for different reasons. It's still a critical game for both teams, regardless of the absence of certain players and their records.

Before the Ravens won a Super Bowl championship after the 2012 season, their Super Bowl was twice a year, against the Steelers.

Before and after the Steelers won their last Super Bowl championship after the 2008 season, they played two Super Bowls against the Ravens.

The two typically dominant AFC North teams are a combined 4-7 and are in a spot neither has seen this far into the season in a very long time - looking up in the divisional race at the Ohio Cousins.

Still, after two games last year decided by a field goal, the ghosts of the real warriors of this rivalry will still cascade through the gold seats at Heinz Field. It's still an event.

Ravens vs. Steelers is still a premium match-up.

The Ravens assembled their 2013 team largely after disassembling their 2012 team. The retirement of Ray Lewis, the release of Ed Reed and the decision to move on from Paul Kruger and Dannelle Ellerbe highlighted the departure list on the defensive side of the ball while Anquan Boldin and his salary were traded to San Francisco. The retirement of Matt Birk thrust another young player into the lineup,

It's a team that's still looking to find its identity. To this point, their running game is a shell of what it used to be, gaining just 2.8 yards a carry with their top two running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

With the burden of the passing game resting on the shoulder of Joe Flacco, the loss of Boldin and the preseason injury to Dennis Pitta have taken their respective tolls, and young receivers are working to earn the confidence of the Super Bowl MVP.

Watching them play, it doesn't appear there's much confidence to be had. They look for big plays from Flacco and veteran WR Torrey Smith, but they come infrequently enough to stall an offense - although often enough to put Smith among the league leaders in receiving yards, and at the top of the list with 20.8 yards per catch.

Smith was held to one catch and 12 yards against Green Bay last weekend.

These aren't the same, or the stats, that have defined this game over the last few years. Terrell Suggs, arguably the biggest anti-Steelers player in the league, is still there and is still performing at the level most will recall. Elvis Dumervil is getting more accomplished per snap than all but a few defenders in the league.

In fact, the offensive lines of both teams are down enough to suggest this could simply come down to which unit will allow fewer sacks and less pressure. The Steelers got a much strong performance from their secondary and established a pass rush against a solid, veteran Jets offensive line last week. The Ravens, however (second in the NFL with 22 sacks), bring pressure from all over their defensive front, and it's straight hat-on-hat; they don't get particularly creative with it.

There isn't much point. The strength and speed they have up front doesn't merit such tactics.

If the Steelers can keep a running game established - and these games don't lend well to the notion of the Steelers running at a very high level - they can use play action passing to their advantage, and pick away at a Ravens secondary that has been no better than mediocre overall - 254 pass yards allowed per game is 17th in the league.

This game seems destined to be another staple in the Steelers/Raven rivalry, defensive-dominated, conservatively played with a few splash plays mixed in ultimately determining the winner.

The only difference is the player making that big play may be different than in years past.

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