Ravens face season-defining game against Steelers

A loss would be major setback to Ravens' playoff hopes.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Ravens are facing a season-defining game against their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Week 9 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore is 4-4 and in third place in the AFC North with a critical stretch ahead. The Ravens likely need to go 6-2 over the second half of the season to end a three-year playoff drought.

The challenge starts with first-place Pittsburgh, which is riding a three-game winning streak.

“They’re playing really well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said about the Steelers. “I They’re not giving up the big plays like they did a little more earlier in the year. They’ve tightened up that part of it. They’ve talked about that. I’ve seen that. To me, they’re playing Steeler football in that sense. They’re playing hard defensively. They’ve made big plays on offense.”

After a bye, the Ravens then take on the Bengals who thoroughly beat them in Week 2. If the Ravens fall out of playoff contention by Week 11, the future of Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco and several other aging veterans could be in jeopardy for 2019.

The 36-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers last week was especially glaring because the Ravens look completely unprepared.

The Ravens’ vaunted Ravens defense, which entered the game against Carolina ranked first for fewest yards (280.6) and fewest points (14.4) allowed, was picked apart by quarterback Cam Newton. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 219 yards with a pair of touchdowns. Newton also ran for a 12-yard score that provided a 33-14 lead with just under 10 minutes left in the game

Harbaugh took full responsibility for the debacle in Charlotte, admitting his team was completely dominated in every facet of the game.

“We just didn’t have it,” Harbaugh said. We weren’t there in terms of what we needed to do – coaching, playing, it starts with me. It’s on my shoulders completely. I’ll take responsibility for it. … We just didn’t click in anything. We weren’t good in any area. There was nothing we did well and that starts with me – the coach. I mean that’s where it belongs, so put it on me and then move forward and get ready for Pittsburgh.”

Baltimore should have some confidence heading into the showdown against the Pittsburgh. The Ravens thoroughly dominated them 26-14 in Week 4 at Heinz Field.

However, the stakes are much higher this time around. The Steelers would like nothing more than to knock their rival out of playoff contention.

“It’s a big game for us,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s a division game. It’s a road game. It’s Baltimore. Pick one, or all of the above. We have respect for this rivalry and our participation in it, and we’re preparing with that in mind.”

NOTES, QUOTES

-- The Ravens made a low-risk, perhaps high-reward move, by acquiring running back and kick returner Ty Montgomery from the Green Bay Packers for a seventh-round draft pick.

The Ravens have struggled with their running attack all season and are ranked 24th in the league with 96.6 yards per game. Montgomery could be a boost, especially on third down. He was moved two days after fumbling a kickoff return with about two minutes left in a 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

“He’s a very versatile player; running back, obviously very good in the pass game as a running back, as well – protection and catching the ball in the backfield and things like that – lines up at receiver at times, and then, as a kick returner,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s done a good job, too, so he brings some versatility for us.”

In his fourth NFL season, Montgomery has registered 1,676 yards from scrimmage (849 rushing on 177 attempts and 827 receiving on 97 catches), scoring 10 total touchdowns (seven rushing and three receiving).

In seven games this season, he has 105 rushing yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. Montgomery also has 15 receptions for 170 yards. The 6-foot, 216-pounder also has experience as a kickoff returner, posting 794 yards on 35 returns (22.7 avg.) during his career.

Green Bay originally selected Montgomery out of Stanford in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Fellow running back Alex Collins, who was limited in practice Wednesday with an ankle injury, showed some burst last week against the Carolina Panthers, running for 49 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown.

Collins finished the 2017 season ranked ninth in the league with 4.6 yards per carry. He had 973yards on 212 carries with six touchdowns. As a result, expectations were high for him to take the next step in his development. Instead, he has struggled with three fumbles and is averaging 3.6 yards per carry.

Overall, Collins is ranked 25th in the NFL with 358 yards. The Ravens will need to get more production over the second half of the season.

-- The month of October has been a horror show for the Baltimore Ravens.

With the loss to the Panthers in Week 8, Baltimore fell to 3-13 in October since 2015. Coach John Harbaugh was in no mood to discuss his team’s struggles in the 10th month of the year.

“I think probably people outside the coaching staff probably have a lot more time on their hands to look at that. I certainly have my thoughts on it,” he said. “You can go back each year and look at the years and see what was going on with the team in those type of situations and look at each game for what it’s worth.”

Nonetheless, the San Francisco 49ers at 1-15 and Cleveland Browns at 2-15 are the only teams with worse records than the Ravens in October. Harbaugh said the stats can sometimes be misleading. .

“You can torture statistics any way you want and get them to tell you whatever you want them to tell you,” he said. “But, there are also statistics that are meaningful. The value in that is to study them and try to make heads or tails of them in ways that can help you go forward. That conversation now is really meaningless to us; it doesn’t really matter. I do have some opinions about it, but we have to win the next game.”

SERIES HISTORY

46th regular-season meeting. The Steelers lead the series 24-21. In Week 4, the Ravens shut out the Steelers in the second half en route to a 26-14 win at Heinz Field, snapping a three-game losing streak in the series. Baltimore limited Pittsburgh to 284 total yards (only 19 rushing), including just 47 yards in the second half. Quarterback Joe Flacco was 28 of 42 for 363 yards -- the most ever by a Raven vs. Pittsburgh -- and a 109.5 QB rating.

BY THE NUMBERS

13 – Ravens-Steelers games that have been decided by 3 or fewer points since 2008, the most among any NFL division rivalry. In addition, 17 of the last 21 Baltimore-Pittsburgh games have been decided by one score.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Tight end Hayden Hurst: Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wants get Hurst more involved in the offense. The rookie first-round pick missed the first four games of the season with a foot injury and has struggled to get into sync since his return. Hurst did play a season-high 30 snaps Week 8 against the Panthers. He has just three receptions for 36 yards with a touchdown. Hurst will need to raise his game over the second half of the season.

GAME PLAN

The Ravens offense has sputtered since teams have adjusted by taking away opportunities for quarterback Joe Flacco to throw downfield. Pittsburgh is ranked 24th, allowing 265 yards passing per game. As a result, Flacco will once again look to go over the top to John Brown or Michael Crabtree to test that Steelers’ secondary. Brown caught three passes for a game-high 116 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown pass in the first meeting. Baltimore will need to keep its passing game revved up because the team has struggled to get its running game on track with Alex Collins and Javorius Allen sharing the load. The Ravens will need to get more out of these players to keep the Steelers’ dynamic offense off the field.

The Ravens are still ranked in the top five for overall defense, but they have struggled over the last two games against the Saints and Panthers. Baltimore is No. 1 with 27 sacks and that will be key against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has already thrown for 2,290 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Pittsburgh also a pair of talented receivers

-- JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown -- and two tight ends -- Jesse James and Vance McDonald-- that can break open a game. The Ravens are 10-1 when they hold Pittsburgh to 20 points or fewer since 2011, but 0-5 when the Steelers score more than 20 points.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Ravens secondary vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown.

Since making headlines for getting into a sideline argument with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, Brown has turned his focus back to football and is playing exceptionally well. He leads the league with eight touchdowns and has historically come up with big plays against Baltimore. The Ravens have struggled with Marlon Humphrey out of the lineup the last two games with a thigh injury. They could be in big trouble if he is not available this game. Fellow cornerbacks Jimmy Smith has struggled since returning from a four-game suspensions and Brandon Carr has also played unevenly.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. Steelers LB T.J. Watt

Watt is tied for eighth in the league with seven sacks and has been a constant force for the Steelers. His goal will be to keep constant pressure on Flacco, who is prone to make mistakes. The Ravens offensive line has dealt with several injuries and Flacco has been sacked 14 times this season. Flacco was sacked twice in the first meeting between the teams, and Pittsburgh will likely need to add to that total to win this game.

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