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The best rivalry in the NFL returns on Sunday as the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. The two teams have undergone very odd changes to their usual winning ways.

The Steelers, of course, have started the season with a terrible 0-4 record.  No team has made the playoffs after starting with a 0-4 record since the 1992 San Diego Chargers (no team accomplished such a feat before the Chargers either). Such a start hadn’t been performed by Pittsburgh since 1968, where they started 0-6. They got their first win last week against the Jets. That was their first game this season without an interception or turnover. Bye weeks tend to help teams in that way.

The Ravens are drifting closer to uncharted territory with a 3-3 record so far. If they end up losing this Sunday, it will be the first time since the (disastrous) 2005 season where their record will be below .500 through 7 weeks. They do, however, have some statistics on their side.

The Ravens are looking to win their 4th straight game in Pittsburgh.  The other AFC North teams, and many other teams, find even 3 straight at Pittsburgh impossible. Flacco has seemingly gotten into a groove when playing against Pittsburgh.

The impressive run may have started due to their 2nd straight win in Pittsburgh in 2011, which was the fantastic 23-20 finish with the Torrey Smith TD in the final seconds.  The most important part of that 2011 season was that the Flacco-led Ravens swept the Roethlisberger-led Steelers. There used to be quite a nit picky criticism that Flacco couldn’t beat the Steelers with their starting QB. Not only did he sweep them at their full strength, but did so while they were tied with about the same record (5-2 Balt vs 6-2 Pitt) and with Pittsburgh a season removed from being in the Superbowl.

Heading into this game, both teams have had bad luck at running the ball.  The Steelers, over the past 3 or so years, have lacked talent in the running game, which for generations was the staple of their offense. Their rookie running back and 2nd & 3rd stringers haven’t been able to either run efficiently or stay healthy. The Ravens have had better luck with health for their running backs, but still average less than 3 yards per attempt. Only Jacksonville has a lower average, and their running back is still their best player. Hopefully our guys can get back on track.

Despite the major topic of concern for the Ravens this year being that they “can’t get their offense on track” or something about Flacco not having good receiving options, Flacco is on a much better pace in passing yards.  In a season where quarterbacks have been throwing like crazy and ignoring the run often, so much more than in previous years, the Ravens are currently ranked 12th in passing offense! Flacco has never been ranked that high, and the Ravens haven’t been in the top 15 in passing offense since their first season. However, Flacco has thrown for the most yardage in the Ravens’ 3 losses this year.

The biggest positive for the Ravens by far has been the pass rush of the defense. They’ve been able to get after the quarterback very easily with the team of Suggs, Dumervil, Ngata, as well as contributions by Chris Canty & Marcus Spears. Opposing teams must also account for up-and-coming players Pernell McPhee & Arthur Jones. The Ravens have put together a very deep front seven. So far, it seems that any combination can cause a whole lot of pressure on the opposing offensive line & quarterback. Depth is what all teams treasure as the season wears on.

The Steelers’ offensive line is still in shambles and has been for many years. As Roethlisberger grows older and his speed & stamina slow down, their need to protect him grows larger. The left tackle that they traded for, almost immediately after the Ravens traded for Eugene Monroe, is already injured for the season. This bodes well for our defense.

Also, they seemed to have overestimated their receiving corps as all the sports “experts” had as well. They figured that losing Mike Wallace to free agency wouldn’t hurt them too badly, but they’ve been 1-4 to start the season. Now the Ravens get to feast on their weakened passing schemes.  In contrast, the Ravens’ receiving corps were underestimated vastly since they traded Anquan Boldin. With the emergence of undrafted rookie Marlon Brown, as well as the progress continuing with Tandon Doss, Jacoby Jones, and the rest of the other wide receivers, the Ravens have been mostly proving the doubters wrong.

The only receiving area the Ravens have continued to struggle in is at tight end. Ed Dickson is nowhere as good as he was catching the ball earlier in his season. Dallas Clark, who was once unstoppable in 2009, has been very inconsistent so far this season. His usual catching pattern looks like this: he drops or is out of position for the first half of a game, and catches almost everything thrown his way in the second half of a game. The total receiving corps, wide receivers & tight ends, have been improving in every passing game as they get more familiar with Flacco.

On Sunday (4:25pm CBS), get ready to enjoy yet another chapter in the most exciting rivalry in the NFL. The Seahawks/49ers rivalry has seemingly cooled off since last season, but the old tried-and-true formula of Ravens/Steelers still makes great football!

-CW

PHOTO CREDITS:  FACEBOOK.COM/BALTIMORERAVENS

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