On Thursday night, the Ravens won’t be going up against the same searching Steelers team they saw in Week 7.
Pittsburgh had started 0-4 and was coming off its first win before edging Baltimore 19-16 at Heinz Field on Oct. 20.
The Steelers then lost their next two before getting on the roll they carry into M&T Bank Stadium. Pittsburgh has won three in a row to improve to 5-6, tying the Ravens for second place in the division and joining the six-team crowd currently tied for the AFC’s second wild card.
The Steelers are the hottest team in the conference entering Thursday, as they own the AFC’s longest active winning streak.
“They’ve continued to improve each week,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “They’re hot right now, doing a lot of good things well. Their running back is running well, and Ben (Roethlisberger) is being Ben and not going down right away. They’re clicking really well right now, so hopefully we can do a great job this week and get off the field.”
What’s the biggest difference in the Steelers since their historically bad start?
“I really just think, largely, everything, and not only from a playing perspective, but from positions that we’re putting the players in as coaches,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “I just think we’re all continually evolving, and thankfully we’re evolving in the right direction.”
Numbers-wise, the Steelers don’t seem to be doing anything markedly better.
They’re 15th in the NFL in total offense (339.5 yards per game) and are averaging 333.3 yards during the winning streak. Like Baltimore, they continue to have difficulty running the ball, ranking 30th in the league with 77.3 rushing yards per game.
Roethlisberger, however, is helping Pittsburgh again have a potent passing attack. The Steelers rank eighth in the NFL with 262.2 yards through the air per game.
“I really checked out Ben, and he has looked like he is getting back to being Ben, shaking guys off and making plays just when you think the play is broke down,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I think that’s when he’s at his best - when he’s most comfortable. They definitely have gotten a lot better, and we realize that. So we’re going to have to prepare for them.”
Defensively, Pittsburgh is 13th in yards allowed per game (343.2), 10th in pass defense (224.4 yards permitted per game) and 13th in scoring defense (23.3 points allowed per game).
Not too much is different statistically from when the teams first met.
The Steelers are simply finding a way to put up more points and win games where earlier this season they weren’t. They’re 21st in the league in scoring offense with 22.1 points per game, but are averaging 29 during the three straight wins.
Wideout Antonio Brown believes the no-huddle has helped the team perform better.
“Definitely some emphasis on the no-huddle,” he said. “It allows us to keep teams off-balance and not allowing them to get in their defensive calls, giving guys our position. It definitely allows us to start fast, allowing us to come into football games and start on the right note. ...
“I think we’re a lot stronger. The adversity we’ve been through has made us even tougher as a band of brothers. We appreciate winning, and we know what it’s like to be on the down of things. We appreciate what it feels like to be on the up of things.”
The Ravens come in on a similar upswing. Baltimore has won two of three since a season-worst three-game skid, improving to 5-6.
In Sunday’s win over the Jets, Baltimore tried using the wildcat formation to add a new wrinkle and try to get the running game going against the league’s best rush defense. On Tuesday, quarterback Joe Flacco voiced his displeasure with the Ravens’ decision to use it.
Coach John Harbaugh responded to those comments on Wednesday.
“My reaction would be my reaction and I’ll just leave it at that. The thing about Joe and any great player is they want the ball in their hands,” Harbaugh said. “He’s always been that and he’s always felt that way, so I want him to have the ball in his hands.”
Harbaugh didn’t have a catchy name for the Ravens’ wildcat and asked reporters for suggestions. One offered up, “Joe hates this” package. And Harbaugh liked it, but said Flacco’s opinions wouldn’t affect whether Baltimore continues to use the unconventional set.
“We’re going to do everything we can do to move the ball offensively,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got guys that can play, that we’ll put on the field in different spots wherever we feel like we need to, and all of our guys support that.”
After the mid-week drama, it’ll be interesting to see if the Ravens use it again on Thursday against Pittsburgh.
One thing is certain - the Ravens will have no problem getting up for the latest chapter in their biggest rivalry, and doing so for a game that means a ton to postseason positioning, and will be played in primetime on Thanksgiving.
It sure doesn’t hurt that the Steelers come in playing so well.
“They’ve been winning. And they haven’t been winning by tricking people,” tailback Ray Rice said. “They’ve been winning games by playing good football, sound football - the offense complementing the defense, hard on special teams.
“They’ve got a winning formula right now. That’s a different team. They’ve got the same problems that we have - different personnel - and they’re doing it with essentially a different team. And you’ve got those veteran guys that we have as well, so seeing those guys putting it together like that is pretty amazing. And that’s what we hope to do ourselves.”
Notes: The Baltimore Symphony will be playing at halftime of Thursday’s game, and will be closing with Seven Nation Army. ... Disney star Zendaya will be singing the national anthem before the Thanksgiving contest.