Baltimore and Pittsburgh, two old rivals that are seemingly in transition, are set to collide at M&T Bank Stadium for a critical AFC North matchup tonight on CBS that also will be simulcast on the NFL Network. The Ravens find themselves in virtual must-win mode after losing their home opener to division foe Cincinnati, but an important week of preparation has spiraled out of control with the nation's laser focus on the Ray Rice debacle and the team's (and head coach's) clumsy handling of the disgraced lead back. The Steelers were able to grab a division win against the Browns but showed plenty of warts in doing so. The loser had better buckle in for a week of doomsday proclamations from a frustrated fan base.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Balitmore Ravens
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS/NFL Network
Spread: Baltimore -2.5
Three Things to Watch
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1. Will Either Defense Show Up?
These two franchises built their reputations on throwing up brick walls at opposing offenses, but those days are seemingly in the past. Neither unit cracked the top 10 in the NFL in total defense last season, and neither proved up to the task in Week 1 of 2014. Baltimore allowed Andy Dalton, a former whipping boy for the Ravens defense, the time and space to do what he wanted, failing to sack him a single time, failing to force a turnover and surrendering 301 yards on a tidy 25-of-38 passing line. Most critically, the defense suffered an unconscionable breakdown on a 77-yard Dalton-to-A.J. Green catch and run for the decisive touchdown in a 23–16 Bengals win. Meanwhile, Dick LeBeau's defense allowed 27 second-half points to the Browns, who used a no-huddle attack that kept the Steelers on their heels. Cleveland pierced the Steel Curtain for 183 yards rushing (100 by unheralded rookie Terrance West) and 6.0 yards per carry, alarming numbers for a proud run defense. This game could produce what would once have been unthinkable for this series: an offensive shootout.
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2. A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Until last season, all Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger did was win a vast majority of their starts. But dueling 8–8 seasons marred by turnovers have dented their armor a bit. Big Ben was fairly impressive against the Browns, completing 23-of-34 passes for 365 yards, but he found the end zone only once and was sacked four times after being dumped 42 times in 2013. Lacking a credible running threat, Flacco was forced to the air at an alarming rate in the Ravens' opener, throwing 62 passes (completing 35) for 345 yards, a touchdown and a critical interception that drew boos from the home crowd. Until Flacco and new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak get better acquainted, look for Big Ben to retain the upper hand in this personal rivalry.
3. Bell Cow Backs
The Steelers have to be thrilled with second-year running back Le'Veon Bell, who picked up right where he left off late last season, rushing for 109 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and adding 88 receiving yards in the win over Cleveland, the best combined yardage performance by a Pittsburgh running back since 2006. History is working against Bell — the Steelers haven't had a back exceed 100 yards against the Ravens in almost a decade — but his combination of vision, speed and toughness could reverse that trend. The Ravens had hoped that Bernard Pierce would fill Rice's shoes, but an early fumble against the Bengals opened the door for Justin Forsett, who responded with 70 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and is enough of a dual threat to earn the lion's share of the snaps. Both teams will try to get their lead backs untracked to take pressure off the quarterbacks.
Much like last week, the Ravens have to be glad to get back to the field and away from the questions about their disgraced former teammate. But on the field, they face a whole different set of questions about their ability to protect the football, force turnovers and generally live up to the standard of excellence they've set under John Harbaugh. Similarly, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin can ride his impressive record only so far in a what-have-you-done-lately league. It's premature to put either coach on the hot seat, but a loss in this one does turn up the heat. The Steelers seem to have the better running threat, which could give them an edge in this one.