For this Ravens-Steelers clash, best defense is a good offense

The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens played at Heinz Field, in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, defense occupied center stage.

There was an old-school feel to the day -- the kind that had defined so many big NFL games for so many years in the Steel City. Cold. Snowy. Nasty. We hit you, you hit us ... whoever's left standing at the end wins.

You don't get so much as a hint of that now, other than the cold and snow. The Steelers and Ravens teams that square off at Heinz Field Sunday, in a game that will go a long way toward determining both of their postseason fortunes, don't quite play defense the way they did a year ago.

Anatomy of a Play

These defenses no longer smother and punish, which was often the case leading up to that conference title game, which the Steelers won before claiming their record sixth Super Bowl crown. The only big plays the respective defenses are involved in are the big plays made by the opposing offenses. With the way the Steelers' and Ravens' offenses are playing lately, this game is likely to be more of a wild shootout than a classic, grind-it-out, throwback-style affair.

"It's almost opposite of what these games have been in the past," Ravens tight end Todd Heap said. "I've been (with the Ravens) for nine years and there hasn't been a ton of high-scoring, runaway games when it's us against the Steelers. Obviously, this one has a different feel to it."

Just look at what happened last weekend.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner as time expired, as the Steelers ended a five-game losing streak with a surprising, 37-36 victory over the Green Bay Packers. Joe Flacco threw four touchdown passes to lead the Ravens to a 31-7 triumph over the Chicago Bears.

Those games emphasized finesse, which isn't a word normally associated with the Steelers-Ravens series.

"It's always been one of the most, if not the most, physical games of the year when the Ravens play the Steelers and I think that's always expected, where you'll be seeing the hits and hearing the hits," Heap said. "But at the same time, they've had some success moving the ball down the field throwing-wise with Roethlisberger and we've done the same thing with Joe. We'll have to see how this one shakes out."

Given the problems that both teams have had in their secondaries, it's reasonable to assume that Roethlisberger and Flacco will combine for huge numbers through the air.

The Ravens lost their second starting cornerback for the season when rookie Lardarius Webb suffered a knee injury against the Bears. They had to re-sign Corey Ivy and shuffle their lineup, but all signs point to considerable opportunity for Big Ben to have a big day with his passing arm.

Billick: Pivotal matchup analyst Brian Billick was asked during his weekly live chat about the AFC playoff picture heading into Week 16.

"The biggest game on the docket for me is the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game. The winner of that has a great shot. Right now, I would give Baltimore and Miami the best chance of getting the fifth and sixth seed."  **Transcript ...**

The Steelers' secondary hasn't been the same without injured safety Troy Polamalu, who is expected to miss this game. Cornerback Ike Taylor has been victimized on numerous long throws, as have safeties Ryan Clark and Tyrone Carter. Flacco isn't likely to hesitate to challenge them deep.

"Hopefully, my defense is putting (Flacco) on his back and he's not making throws," Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks said. "But they do have a great offense. They have some good weapons over there and they have a decent offensive line."

Starks sees two offenses that have matured to a level where they are more capable of producing points in bunches than a year ago. The Nov. 29 meeting between the teams in Baltimore wasn't a shootout; the Ravens won, 20-17, in overtime. But rookie Dennis Dixon made his first NFL start in place of Roethlisberger, who sat out while recovering from a concussion.

Flacco was limited to mostly managing games as a rookie last year, but has been put into more of a playmaking role this season. He got off to a hot start, then cooled off before recently returning to his early season form.

"Joe's done a great job of just moving the ball around to different guys and really putting us in a position to make plays," Heap said. "That's the key thing with a quarterback -- being that point guard, making assists, putting the ball away from the defender and where the receiver can get it. And he's just doing a great job making plays that way."

Said Starks, "It's going to be interesting to see how our guys stack up against their offense, which is also an explosion-type, taking-chunks-at-a-time offense. It'll be interesting to see how the seesaw battle goes."

Even more intriguing is how the game impacts a muddled AFC playoff picture that has six teams (including the Steelers) with 7-7 records and two (the Ravens and Broncos) that are 8-6.


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With a victory, the Ravens can strengthen their grip on a wild-card spot and stay within striking distance of the AFC North crown, in case the front-running Cincinnati Bengals (9-5) should stumble in the final two weeks. At the very least, the Steelers can play the role of spoiler, something from which they'd take great pleasure doing against their fiercest rivals. At the most, they can keep their playoff hopes alive and perhaps sneak in as a sixth seed.

"There are so many different scenarios that can go down," Heap said. "But I think the thing that is working in our favor right now is that we have control. And if we can come out and win this ballgame, we keep that control. We don't want to give that up."

Despite what has mostly been a frustrating season, the Steelers remain confident in their chances of returning to the postseason, according to Starks. Regardless of what happens, he sees a bright side to the disappointment of going from defending Super Bowl champions to being on the brink of playoff elimination.

"This year, what happened to us needed to happen," Starks said. "As a group, it helped a lot of guys mature and realize that you can't be complacent because not every year is guaranteed. You have to go out there and play every game; you can't take any opponent for granted.

"I think that's made us a more humble and a more grounded group."

Grounded, that is, until Sunday's kickoff. After that, look for the Steelers and Ravens to take to the air.

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