Ravens, Steelers go to 'dark place' to ignite fierce rivalry

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"This game isn't everything. We'll have 15 weeks to run them down, or they'll have 15 weeks to run us down. And I know we'll get better either way."

John Harbaugh said that to me two days before his Ravens beat down the Steelers, 35-7, on Sept. 11 in Baltimore. And for the most part, his feeling on all of that stands as the teams get ready for the return match Sunday in Pittsburgh.

But Harbaugh's also living in reality here. The Ravens have only swept the Steelers once since moving from Cleveland in 1996. Doing it now would be a first for a lot of folks in purple, the coach included.

So yes, it'd mean something to go into Heinz Field and finish that job. It's not hard to figure why, either, with this rivalry being not only the NFL's best, but also its fiercest.

"What would it mean?" Harbaugh asked, rhetorically, Tuesday night. "It would mean we'd have a one-game lead in the loss column on them, we'd have a leg up on Pittsburgh with the tiebreaker. Would it be meaningful? This is a team we have great respect for. It's our rival, no matter what they want to say about it being a rivalry. For both teams, you beat your rival, I'm pretty certain it means a lot."

Harbaugh's been in Baltimore for four years now, and the face of the team has changed plenty in that time.

This year, in particular, it's getting younger. Where the coach has relied on new guys in key spots in the past, like Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, 2011 has signified the organization turning over much responsibility to a set of young players (Ed Dickson, Terrence Cody, Jameel McClain, Cary Williams, Lardarius Webb) and rookies (Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee and, once he's healthy, Jimmy Smith).

That transition may explain six rough quarters for Baltimore -- four in Jacksonville last Monday followed by the first two against Arizona -- but Harbaugh's feeling is every team has those types of bumps. He was proud of his team's ability to grind through a tough time and come out with the second-half flourish it had against the Cardinals. The idea is to improve, whether it's Flacco (consistency), 29-year-old Terrell Suggs (added rush moves) or 27-year-old Haloti Ngata (leaner, quicker).

"We're only getting better," Harbaugh says, "but that doesn't mean we don't have bumps like every other team."

And the bumps are worth it, in his mind, to develop young talent.

"We're not hanging on here, we're trying to build something lasting," Harbaugh continued. "People can scoff or say stuff about some of the moves we've made, but that's what we're building for. We held on to Haloti. And Ed (Reed) and Ray (Lewis) are gonna play as long as they can, those guys and Jarret Johnson are Ravens for life. And we're bringing the young guys along, with the coaches doing their jobs. It builds a self-fulfilling, propelling program. We think we have something special building here."

The Steelers have hit their own roadblocks, too. Three weeks after the crushing loss in the opener, they were pushed around in Houston and, until last Sunday against New England, didn't have a signature win. Even after handling the Patriots, Pittsburgh's injury issues -- staples James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Hines Ward are working their way back -- are enough to elicit concern.

But Baltimore and Pittsburgh have fought their way here, again. As usual, both are in contention, with a lot on the line.

For all the benefits of the big construction effort Harbaugh's referencing -- he's been openly saying it's his goal to build a dynasty in Baltimore -- these games are where referendum are passed on that progress. And that's because so much of that building, in both places, is to prepare for these street fights.

Over the phone, Harbaugh traded stories about his first experience in one of those, which also happened to be my first time at one of them, back in 2008. That was the game where Lewis ended Rashard Mendenhall's rookie season by, more or less, breaking his torso in half, and I told Harbaugh that it felt to me like that one was played in a dark place. And I said the rest of them since have felt that way, in a way no other NFL games do. He agreed.

"It's almost surreal," Harbaugh said. "All of a sudden, everything's different. You go into this dark place. It's like you're in this globe, in a good way, and suddenly there's nothing outside of that moment, outside of that stadium. It's unique to these games, and yet, both teams are so comfortable in that place. It's where we're supposed to be. It's where they're supposed to be. It's hard to describe."

Harbaugh has split home-and-homes with Pittsburgh the past two years, after the Ravens were swept in the coach's first season. There are common threads over that period, too. In all three cases, the Steelers won the second of the teams' two regular season games. In 2008 and '10, that meant when the two teams met in the playoffs, the games were at Heinz Field, and the Steelers won both of those.

 Ravens coach 
 John Harbaugh on the 
 Steelers rivalry. 

As for the potential of home-field advantage being on the line, Harbaugh says he and his team hardly mind going into the lion's den. Screaming fans, with Styx's Renegade blaring and the Pittsburgh defense looming? "We love that song, too," said Harbaugh. "We get just as jacked as they do."

So the Ravensaren't going in there to prove a point. But they're well-aware that, if they can pull this one out, that's just what they'll do.

"It's a big challenge, it always is," said Harbaugh. "This team plays football the way we play football -- we understand each other. And we know we have to pour ourselves into this game completely -- emotionally, physically, intellectually. We know there's a lot on the line. But if we win this game, we have to follow that up and make it matter."

But truth be told, few Sundays matter like this one does to these two teams. And when it's over, that won't be difficult to see.

Wade's world: Texans defense buys in

Guys at different levels of the Houston defense have different opinions of how the unit's attitude and mentality has changed under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has implemented a switch from the 4-3 to a 3-4.

» A down lineman, Antonio Smith, tells you, "He preaches it, that mind-set, and it's positive, the way he talks about the defense. What we do, and some people knock it, the way he says it, we're going to be well-informed and we're gonna try a lot of things."

» A linebacker, Brian Cushing, says, "Switching to a 34, getting more linebackers on the field, it gives you no room but to be tougher. We have the style and attitude of playing that position, and it's rubbed off on guys. We're more aggressive, more violent, and hungrier. And with the coaching in place, we go into every game thinking we should win."

» A defensive back, Johnathan Joseph, gives another point of view, in saying, "I think he gets guys to relax. There's no yelling or cursing. And he clears the game up for you."

Every guy sees it his own way. That's the way Phillips wants it, giving each player latitude to be himself and making the defense work for all 11 guys on the field at time. That "latitude" burned him as a head coach in Dallas, but in running the Texans' defense, it's led to a universal buy-in during a time -- given the lockout -- in which all new head coaches and coordinators in the NFL need it.

The results speak for themselves. The Texans are third in total defense, fifth in yards allowed per play, sixth in rush defense, fifth in pass defense, sixth in interception percentage, 14th in sacks per pass play and seventh in first downs allowed per game. Their ranks in those categories in 2010: 30th, 31st, 13th, 32nd, 25th, 26th and 31st. Most importantly, Houston is fifth in points allowed per game, after ranking 29th last year.

That's proof that not just the players are buying what Phillips is selling, but that what Wade's selling is paying immediate dividends. The biggest reason, according to the players, is simple: It's easy to go all-in on something that makes you better, and that scheme has done just that for everyone.

"I think what's impressed me most is his defense isn't based on specific body frames for this position or that position," said Smith. "In his own words, he says, 'I've done this so long that I've worked with all different types.' If you're a quicker, side-to-side guy, he can incorporate that. If you're a strong, point-of-attack player, he'll use that. He always says, 'We'll play to your strengths. And that makes it easy for us to believe in him."

All that started in camp. The players, to a man, say one key was that things were installed slowly, and Phillips wouldn't let the defense move from one thing to the next until it got the first thing right. Then, through preseason game reps, the players built confidence. By the time the summer was over, according to Cushing, "even at practice, you could see (Matt) Schaub getting frustrated playing against us."

The idea, all along, was that the defense could no longer be the weak sister. It's working.

"For me, in college, it was the opposite of what we had here. At SC, for three of my four years, it was really our defense winning games, and I liked being part of the strong point of the team," said Cushing. "Here, coming off losses, we'd known a great deal of why we were losing was the defense not making plays. It feels better now, going into games and knowing we've got each other's back."

And that's continued even with Mario Williams out for the year and a rookie, Brooks Reed, taking his place. Reed's just one in a slew of additions, a group that includes fellow draft pick J.J. Watt and veteran pickups Joseph and Danieal Manning. But Phillips was as big an acquisition as anyone, that's for sure.

"There's not one person here who's not on board with Wade," said Joseph. "He's a great guy, a great personality, he cares about you and, as a defensive player, you know he's going to make the right call. He makes you want to play for him."

Newton's not-so steep learning curve

Question: How in the world has Cam Newton adjusted to a complex NFL offense so quickly after playing in Auburn's one-read system?

Answer: Auburn's system wasn't so simple after all.

OK, so that's not the only reason why Newton's starred so quickly. But just listen to Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who explains how perception doesn't always mesh with reality, as part of the team's exhaustive study of the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner.

"What was interesting was that people said he couldn't make this throw or that throw," Rivera said. "We watched every throw, and he made every throw at Auburn. He threw to the flat, he threw the '7' route from the opposite hash, the fade, the post, the out from opposite hash. And the other thing we did was sit down with (Auburn coach Gene) Chizik and (offensive coordinator Gus) Malzahn.

"Gus explained to us the progressions that Cam went through. He explained that Cam was reading three things, then going through his progressions. Then we got Cam on the board, and he took us through them. … There were so many unfair notions about him."

Most have been debunked. Newton is on pace to complete 348 of 574 passes for 4,786 yards, 22 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The yardage number would break the NFL rookie record by over 1,000 yards, while he'd be second in completions, third in attempts and second in TD passes all-time for a first-year passer. Not bad for a guy who was seen as a raw prospect.

One factor, says Rivera, has been the player walking into a pretty good situation. The Panthers boast an elite stable of backs behind Newton, a veteran offensive line in front of him, a premier playmaker, in Steve Smith, on the perimeter, and two accomplished tight ends as safety valves.

But the bigger element has been Newton himself.

After Newton worked with Chris Weinke through the lockout, Rivera said it was evident that the rookie was coming in with a leg-up. He took every snap from center during those teaching sessions and drilled footwork -- one area where he needed work -- while learning how to play in Rob Chudzinski's offense from an experienced hand.

Chudzinski and Co. have put in some of the zone-read option and pistol concepts that Newton ran at Auburn. But the more they watch, the more they see a polished NFL quarterback emerging, with the Panthers going into their bye week and eight games in the books.

And the really scary thing: Next year will be the first year since high school that Newton's started for the same team in consecutive years. So the best could well be ahead.

College coaches with NFL potential

Earlier in the week, an NFL.com Instant Debate examined coordinators who could be next in line to become head coaches, providing alternatives to big names like Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher. But there's another pool that, given the 2011 success of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, could bear watching, and that one's in the college ranks.

So with that in mind, after conversations with some NFL folks who are around the NCAA level frequently, here are eight names that could draw interest:

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: Highly regarded at every level of the game, Fitzgerald already has six years as a head coach under his belt, and he's only 36. "He will never leave," said an AFC personnel chief, "but I'd hire him in a minute."

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Mike London, Virginia: An NFC exec says London "is winning without bellcows" at UVa. He's got NFL pedigree, having worked for Al Groh, and experience, having coached for the Texans in 2005.

Will Muschamp, Florida: Probably not leaving Gainesville anytime soon, but he's earned the respect of many NFL people and was coordinator for a successful Nick Saban defense with the Dolphins in 2005.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska: Spent nine years (1994-2002) as a NFL position coach, and while his hot temper could be a drawback, he's well thought of in pro circles. One scout explained, "He runs that team like an NFL team."

Dan Quinn, Florida: One scout says he has a "very good rep" in the NFL, but he's still just a defensive coordinator in college. Spent six years as an NFL defensive line coach, from the Nick Saban tree.

Steve Sarkisian, Washington: Was Oakland's QB coach in 2004, the Raiders' first choice the year they hired Lane Kiffin, and worked with three first-round quarterbacks at USC. "He's not ready," said the AFC personnel chief. "But he's someone to watch."

David Shaw, Stanford: The Cardinal are 8-0 and Andrew Luck hasn't missed a beat. Shaw needs to prove himself post-Luck, but with Harbaugh's success, he may get a shot down the line, especially with nine years as an NFL assistant under his belt.

Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: There are murmurs that if an NFL team approaches Stoops, he'll listen. And delegate to experienced people. "He's a tremendous manager," said a scout. "And he hires great assistants."

The names of old standbys Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Randy Edsall (Maryland), and Mike Sherman (Texas A&M) were also raised. Ferentz, in particular, could be one to watch after youngest son James is finished at Iowa, following the 2012 season. Malzahn is another one who, down the line, could become a Mike Leach-type candidate. And NFL types also joke about Nick Saban lurking over things, but no one seems willing to rule out the possibility he could make one final run at the pros at some point.

Four things I'll look for this weekend

1) Whether or not the Niners can continue their Eastern dominance. San Francisco has gone West-to-East and won 1 p.m. ET games against quality opponents on three occasions already this year -- in Cincinnati, in Philadelphia and in Detroit. And they proved their mettle, and endurance, on each trip, coming from behind in the fourth quarter every time. The Niners will get a chance to score another one against a Redskins team playing for its season at FedEx Field. And if San Francisco gets through this week, which represents a bit of a landmine, a first-round bye could be in their sights. They do have challenges left -- the cross-country trip to Baltimore for the Thanksgiving Harbaugh Bowl qualifies -- but they also have the Cardinals twice, the Rams twice and a trip to Seattle. And that much is another validation of the work of Harbaugh and Co. They haven't even had much of a chance to take advantage of playing in the NFC West yet.

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2) Philip Rivers getting the Packers at home. The Packers defense has scored a staggering 88 takeaways in the 39 games that Dom Capers has served as their defensive coordinator, leading the league in 2009 and ranking in the top six the past two years. Beware, Philip Rivers. The Chargers quarterback has thrown an NFL-high 11 interceptions, the third-highest total of his career with just seven games in the books. That raises lots of questions, of course, not the least of which is whether or not Rivers is hurt, with scouts and analysts pointing out that he's wincing and compensating in delivering the ball. This week, in the pristine San Diego conditions, the Chargers are going to need whatever he's got left, with it likely Aaron Rodgers could turn this one into a shootout. And under those conditions, the ball-hawking Packers defense could well have a shot at more big plays, and we might learn more about where Rivers is at physically.

3) The teams coming off a bye this week -- the Falcons, Bears, Packers, Jets, Raiders and Buccaneers. And as has been noted a bunch of other places, the time off hasn't served clubs well this year. Teams coming off a bye are 8-10 in their first game back. Some folks blame the new rules, with the problems already existing due to the contact-in-practice rules compounded by players getting a mandated four days away during the bye week. It's hard to quantify how real that is, and how much of it is circumstantial, but teams are aware of it. The Falcons, for example, have discussed how getting out of the gate quickly in Indianapolis will be important, since any lethargy could turn a game with the lowly Colts into a potential pothole.

4) Michael Vick against the Tampa-2. When Michael Vick was a Falcon, the team that traditionally gave him fits was Tampa Bay. The reason was simple: Monte Kiffin's scheme emphasized speed and put lighter, more agile linebackers on the field, capable of containing and pursuing the explosive quarterback. And despite some big numbers on the surface, Vick has his problems with a similarly built Bears defense last year. So it'll be interesting to see how he builds off an absolutely masterful performance against Dallas (season high QB rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt) on Monday against a tough defensive foe.

Three conclusions

1) Chuck Pagano could soon be a Rex-type head coach candidate. The new Ravens defensive coordinator has turned up the swagger and play-making in Baltimore. And the feeling in the facility is the club has a defense that now belongs with the 2000 and 2006 groups. Part of this, as we mentioned above, is the players. Ngata and Suggs have gotten even better, and Reed and Lewis continue to defy age. But part of it, too, is Pagano bringing a risk-taking, take-what-we-want approach to his deployment of the talent, which fits the personality of so many of those players. The first-year DC, now 51 years old, may not get his shot in 2012. But with a decade of NFL experience and an ability to get the most out of players, a la Rex (and he's worked with both Ryan brothers), Pagano's one to watch going forward.

2) Ben Roethlisberger belongs among the NFL's top-five quarterbacks. The four names that you generally hear atop the quarterback charts are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. For now, let's give Manning his injury mulligan and leave him in the group. And tack Roethlisberger's name in there as well. What he proved against New England on Sunday is he can adjust to changing conditions. The Patriots weren't going to give him the deep ball -- and the Steelers are now built on the perimeter to accentuate that part of Roethlisberger's game -- and they weren't going to let him break contain. So he sat in the pocket, and chipped away. When it was over, he'd paper-cut his way to 365 yards and two touchdowns on 36-of-50 passing and shown his maturity as a quarterback. That's what the greats do. They adjust when their strengths are taken away.

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3) Romeo Crennel is doing as good a job as any NFL assistant. After a horrific start to the season, Crennel has scratched together a damn good defense, even with rising young star Eric Berry out for the season. And on larger scale, he's been important in harvesting the raft of young talent on the roster. Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali were on the verge of being washouts before Crennel arrived, and Glenn Dorsey hadn't developed as the Chiefs had hoped. The defensive coordinator got more of them, and also helped Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr ascend at corner. Since his 2010 arrival, the team has locked up Hali, Flowers and Johnson to anchor a young core that includes Dorsey and Berry. No matter how the rest of the year turns out for K.C., the future looks bright on defense, and Crennel's been a big part of that.

Two pieces of business

1) A big part of the decision to jettison veteran players has to be who is replacing them. Give Cincinnati owner Mike Brown an "A" for his assessments in those spots this year. The jury's still out on Carson Palmer in Oakland, but Brown certainly looks like he knew what he was doing in dealing off Chad Ochocinco. The flip side of it is the replacements he's brought in. Second-round pick Andy Dalton has completed 62.4 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,479 yards, nine touchdowns and seven picks, and compiled a respectable 82.7 rating through seven starts. First-round pick A.J. Green has 33 catches for 516 yards and five touchdowns. So in both cases, the argument can be made that the Bengals got better, for which they should be applauded.

2) If Jacksonville is looking for a new head coach in 2012, as many expect, it might wind up being a more attractive job than you'd think. The Jaguars defense has quietly ascended, under Mel Tucker, to rank seventh in the league, after impressive efforts against Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Houston. And there's the makings of a good offensive line, and the quarterback of the future is in place. You can question how much longer Maurice Jones-Drew can carry as heavy load as he has. But it does seem like the shell of a pretty good team is in place. Now, if Jack Del Rio does more with that group over the next two months, all this will represent is a moot point.

One prediction

Ndamukong Suh will find a way to work his game within the rules.

Suh's aggressive style has always meshed with Jim Schwartz's -- aggressive and edgy to the limit of the regulations. And I think Suh is smart and thoughtful enough to adjust accordingly.

The meeting with the commissioner, in my mind, is proof positive of that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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