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Yes, line play is always important, but it's the centerpiece around which all revolves this week.
The Ravens' defensive front is under scrutiny for the same reason as Flacco the week before -- its last game wasn't up to par. You saw it, no doubt. The Cleveland Browns put on a power football clinic Sunday, gashing the Ravens for 173 rushing yards in the Ravens' 24-17 win.
It was surprising, and certainly unsettling. The Browns' Peyton Hillis resembled their franchise's greatest all-time runner, Jim Brown, blasting through holes and bowling over tacklers. The Ravens had allowed an opposing runner to gain more than 100 yards in three of their prior 18 games (after their 40-game no-no streak was broken last October) but this one was different, truly a physical humbling.
"They didn't want none of us," Cleveland fullback Lawrence Vickers memorably said.
Now come the Steelers, with Rashard Mendenhall ranked fourth in the league in rushing through three games and journeyman Charlie Batch as their quarterback while Ben Roethlisberger sits out one more game. Just put yourself in their shoes. (If you can stand it.) They're game-planning for the Ravens. They're watching the Cleveland game film. How do you think they're going to try to win Sunday? Not with Batch, that's for sure.
Can the run defense bounce back? At his Monday press conference, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh didn't care for a question about the possibility of giving up back-to-back 100-yard games, saying, "We don't dwell on that stuff – stats. I guess you can write an article about stats if you want. We're going to try to win the next game."
The coach justifiably credited the Browns for blocking and running well Sunday while claiming his front's bad day was attributable to "a combination of things, but all things are correctible."
Going forward, Harbaugh said, "We play the defense we play. We believe in the fronts we play, and we have really good players. We just [need to] play a little bit better and coach a little bit better, and we stop the run."
If they can bounce back and slow down Mendenhall, they would put the game in Batch's hands, where they prefer it.
The situation is similarly clear on the other side of the ball. The Steelers are tied for fourth in the league in sacks, with 10 in three games. They've got a strong pass rush. They've also looked at film of the Ravens and surely noticed that Flacco can pick apart a defense when given time to throw, but like a lot of quarterbacks, has a harder time under pressure.
Here they come.
It's going to be a major challenge for the Ravens' reshuffled offensive front, which features Marshal Yanda at right tackle and Chris Chester at right guard as Jared Gaither continues to rehab his sore back and slowly becomes a forgotten man.
The line has held up relatively well so far in pass protection, allowing just three sacks of Flacco in three games, although the Jets and Bengals did pressure him hard at times. But a year ago, the Ravens brought a reshuffled line to Pittsburgh, tried to get by with Oniel Cousins at right tackle and, well, let's just say it didn't work out.
This isn't quite the same. Yanda has made more than half of his career starts at right tackle, Chester more than half of his career starts at right guard. Harbaugh has consistently praised both this year, calling them "good football players." Along with center Matt Birk, left guard Ben Grubbs and left tackle Michael Oher, they'll need to open holes for whoever is running the ball, Ray Rice or Willis McGahee, and they'll need to keep Flacco from getting harassed and dumped.
The pressure is on.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*