Eisenberg: Finishing Will Probably Be the Deciding Factor in Pittsburgh


James Hurst is a tackle for the Ravens, but he transformed into a very large soothsayer earlier this week, offering reporters his vision for how Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers would unfold.

"It's going to be a three-point game, something like that. We know that going in," Hurst said. "We know it's probably going to come down to a two-minute drill at the end of the game."

That isn't an outside-the-box prediction. The Ravens and Steelers are known for playing close games. Their two most recent meetings at Heinz Field were decided in the final seconds, with the Steelers scoring a winning touchdown the first time and kicking a winning field goal the second. Only one of their past six contests was decided by more than a touchdown.

Games between these AFC North rivals usually boil down to a simple question: Who finishes better?

Who makes the play that makes the difference?

It's a question that leaves the Ravens' defensive players somewhat fidgety these days. Their unit has generally performed well in recent years, but an inability to protect late leads, both in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, has watered down that success.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and his offense put up enough points to win the past two games in Pittsburgh; it was the defense that faltered when it couldn't make a stop down the stretch. The same was true in last season's pivotal home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, which cost the Ravens their first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

Heading into Sunday night's game, I don't think the big question for the Ravens' defense is whether they can stop quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and the rest of Pittsburgh's offense; let's face it, no one just slams the door on them, even when running back Le'Veon Bell isn't playing. No, the big question Sunday night easily could be whether Baltimore's defense makes the one key stop when it matters most, late in the game, when the result is up for grabs.

It doesn't necessarily take much, perhaps just a single moment of brilliance. One well-timed play certainly could have made all the difference in Pittsburgh the past two years.

But such moments can be fleeting, which is partly why Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh awarded a game ball to linebacker Patrick Onwuasor after last Sunday's win over Denver. Other Ravens on that side of the ball had more tackles and sacks, but Onwuasor's fourth-quarter interception halted a Denver drive just when the Broncos seemed on the verge of reducing a rout to a one-score game.

"We told the guys, we've been in these situations before, where it gets tense in the end and tight at the end, and someone has to step up and make a play. He did that there," Harbaugh said of Onwuasor.

The Ravens don't care who makes the key play if one is needed Sunday night; they just care that someone does.

The Steelers are three-point favorites and a majority of prognosticators are picking them, which is hardly surprising considering they're playing at home. But I think the Ravens are going in with a great chance to win. They're one of the league's most balanced teams through three games with their offense ranked No. 5 in scoring and their defense No. 1 in fewest yards allowed.

The Steelers are ranked No. 7 in scoring, but their defense looks extremely vulnerable so far, having allowed 1,231 yards and 90 points in three games.

Adding up all those factors, it sure sounds as if another close, back-and-forth game is liable to unfold. Once upon a time, this rivalry was all about punishing defenses, and bitter, low-scoring games were the norm. But the offenses dominate now, especially in Pittsburgh for some reason.

Regardless, the safest prediction of all is Hurst's, that the game will come down to someone needing to make a stop as midnight draws near – a scenario that has nettled the Ravens for a couple of years. If it arises again and they really want to demonstrate they're headed for better things in 2018, that's where they do it.

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