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Old 07-23-2009, 11:18 PM   #1
mesaSteeler
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Default Big roadblock still in Ravens' AFC North path: The Steelers

Big roadblock still in Ravens' AFC North path: The Steelers
By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
Put aside the NFL clichι "it's hard to beat a team three times in a season." What's really hard is when you lose to the same team three times in a season.

The 2008 Baltimore Ravens absorbed that triple dose of defeat to their archrivals in the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those three games made the difference between what was a very solid season for the Ravens and one that might have been, well, super.

With rookie coach John Harbaugh in command and rookie Joe Flacco at quarterback, Baltimore went 11-5 in the regular season. Two losses to the Steelers by a total of seven points cost the Ravens the AFC North title.

As a wild-card team, the Ravens beat the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans on the road before losing the AFC title game in Pittsburgh to the eventual Super Bowl champs.

"You look back on those games, and you wish you could have beaten them at least one of the times. And if you beat them one of the times, you'd wish it was in the AFC Championship Game," says Flacco, who demonstrated poise beyond his years during his maiden voyage in the NFL. "But we're going to have many chances to play those guys, and the most important thing now is looking to this year and figuring out how we're going to do that."

The 2009 Ravens will rise or fall depending on how well they handle changes and challenges:

• Rex Ryan, mastermind and motivator behind an attacking defense that ranked second in the NFL (only to Pittsburgh), left to become head coach of the New York Jets.

• Many key players are the same on defense, including the Pro Bowl likes of linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed.

But Ryan took linebacker Bart Scott and strong safety Jim Leonhard with him as free agents to New York.

• The offensive line lost center Jason Brown to free agency and tackle Willie Anderson to retirement.

The Ravens signed Matt Birk from the Minnesota Vikings to replace Brown. Rookie first-round draft pick Michael Oher will get a shot at Anderson's right tackle spot.

• Despite offseason speculation the Ravens would make a move for a big-play wide receiver, they have yet to do so. The team might be forced to act if No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason, who told Jocklife.com on July 13 that he was retiring, doesn't return. However, Mason — who is not signed beyond the 2009 season, battled a shoulder injury last year and, perhaps most important, is dealing with the death of former teammate and close friend Steve McNair— has not filed his retirement papers to the league office.

With or without Mason, mostly a possession receiver, the team needs more big plays in the passing game. Maybe those can come from Mark Clayton, who led the Ravens with an average of 17 yards a catch in 2008.

"We can do some big things," Clayton says. "Whatever Coach (Harbaugh) needs, I got him. Whether it's a first down or a big play, I got it."

The Ravens could have used a few more big plays in those three losses to the Steelers.

• Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh, Baltimore held a 10-point lead late in the third quarter. The Steelers won 23-20 in overtime.

• Dec. 14 in Baltimore, with the division title at stake, Pittsburgh won 13-9 on a disputed touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds remaining.

• In the Jan. 18 AFC title game, the Ravens trailed by two points when they took possession with 6:50 left. But Flacco was intercepted by Troy Polamalu, who returned it 40 yards for a touchdown — Steelers 23, Ravens 14.

"We look back and we see what we can learn from it, and that's what we're going to do and move forward," Flacco says. "There are probably going to be a couple of games with them this year that are going to come down to a couple of plays, so we've got to make sure that we're the ones making the plays."

Oher is already well-versed in the rivalry. "I've been a part of a lot of rivalries, so I understand a rival. It's big," he says. "So that's going to be a game in which you must perform at a high level."

Oher watched last year's games on television. "You knew if Pittsburgh and Baltimore were playing it was going to be a physical game," he says. "So everybody was going to be sore the next morning"

Rookie defensive end-linebacker Paul Kruger, a second-round pick, also understands the meaning of the games with Pittsburgh.

"Two competitive teams in the same division. … It's something I'll be getting into pretty soon," he says.

After the Ravens drafted Kruger, general manager Ozzie Newsome said the team had debated whether to trade out of the second round for more picks.

But they liked Kruger.

And there was a Pittsburgh factor.

"One of the things we set out to do this offseason was to put some additional heat on the quarterback," Newsome said. "Particularly the guy (Ben Roethlisberger) that plays up in Pittsburgh."

AROUND THE FIELD IN BALTIMORE

• Quarterback: Before 2008, the Ravens had a revolving door history at quarterback. But first-rounder Joe Flacco started from opening day and showed he has the poise and big arm to hold the position for years. Troy Smith, who could see time in a Wildcat role, and John Beck will compete for No. 2. Beck played under Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron when both were with the Miami Dolphins.

• Running back: Le'Ron McClain, a 260-pound fullback, emerged to lead the NFL's fourth-ranked running game with 902 yards and 10 touchdowns. Though McClain might not get as many carries in 2009, he will remain a vital component. Willie McGahee is coming off knee surgery and a season in which his production slipped. Second-year man Ray Rice will challenge to become an every-down back.

• Wide receiver: Trouble if leading receiver Derrick Mason, Flacco's security blanket last year, follows through on plans to retire, though coach John Harbaugh plans to meet with Mason. Regardless, the Ravens are looking for somebody to emerge as a downfield threat. Demetrius Williams would probably start opposite Mark Clayton if Mason walks away.

• Tight end: Free agent signee L.J. Smith, who battled injuries the last two years with the Philadelphia Eagles, could be another prime target for Flacco. Mainstay Todd Heap was hampered last season by hamstring, back and ankle injuries.

• Offensive line: Center Jason Brown was lured away by a contract from the St. Louis Rams, while veteran right tackle Willie Anderson retired. The Ravens signed six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk from the Minnesota Vikings to replace Brown. First-round draft pick Michael Oher from Mississippi will get a shot at right tackle. Chris Chester should hold down the fort at right guard while Marshal Yanda recuperates from major knee surgery.

• Defensive line: Haloti Ngata can dominate at the nose or on the outside. Terrell Suggs, the team's top pass rusher, is coming off his third Pro Bowl season as a rush end-linebacker. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg will attempt to return to form while coming off microfracture surgery on his left knee.

• Linebacker: After testing the free agent market to no avail, 10-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis returns. But another key man, inside linebacker Bart Scott, signed with the New York Jets. Second-year pro Tavares Gooden has the inside track to replace Scott.

• Secondary: Free safety Ed Reed had a league-best nine interceptions in 2008 and made the Pro Bowl for the fifth time. Strong safety Jim Leonhard signed with the Jets, but former starter Dawan Landry returns after missing most of last season with a spinal-cord concussion. Domonique Foxworth (a free agent signee from the Atlanta Falcons) and Fabian Washington figure to start on the corners, with vet Samari Rolle the nickelback.

• Special teams: Kicker Matt Stover was not re-signed after 18 years with the franchise. Steven Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano will compete for the job. Yamon Figurs, Chris Carr, Tom Zbikowski and Rice are capable returners, though Reed occasionally comes out of the bullpen to bring his game-breaking ability to the punt team. Brendon Ayanbadejo is a Pro Bowl special-teams ace.

• Coaching staff: Last season as a rookie coach, Harbaugh took the Ravens to the AFC title game. He will move forward without defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, new coach of the Jets. Former linebackers coach Greg Mattison has been promoted to replace Ryan, and he figures to use the same aggressive, attacking style.

• Outlook: The defense might not be as formidable as it was last season (second to the Pittsburgh Steelers), but it might not have to be if Flacco continues his rapid development. The Ravens figure to be in the hunt again.



Find this article at:
http://www.usatoday.com/sports/footb...rt_N.htm?csp=3

(Ah it almost makes me want to cry that we are in the way of the Ratbirds. NOT - mesa)
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Old 07-24-2009, 03:45 AM   #2
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Default Re: Big roadblock still in Ravens' AFC North path: The Steelers

I have to say Baltimore almost always plays Pittsburgh tough. I have to say I get nervous everytime we play them.
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Old 07-24-2009, 09:03 AM   #3
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Default Re: Big roadblock still in Ravens' AFC North path: The Steelers

We're in their collective heads now. When that happens, the team with the psychological edge has already won the war before the first snap takes place.
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