Watching replays of their last encounter with Antonio Brown is painful for the Ravens' secondary. Certainly, it can serve as motivation for Sunday night's game in Pittsburgh.
Brown went wild with 11 catches for 213 yards and a touchdown last December, helping the Steelers to a 39-38 come-from-behind victory. A 34-yard catch on third-and-4 set up the Steelers' game-winning kick. It was a costly defeat, one that largely contributed to the Ravens missing the playoffs.
The Ravens get another crack at Brown on Sunday Night Football, and veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith will still be out of the lineup, just as he was in the last meeting, as he serves the final game of his four-game NFL suspension. The onus falls on cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and the entire Ravens defense to do better this time against Brown.
"It's going to take all 11," Carr said. "That's why you play this game is to play guys like this."
Overall, the Ravens' secondary has held up well without Smith in the first three weeks. Baltimore's defense sits atop the league in large part because it has allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL (169.3 per game).
But the Ravens surrendered three touchdowns to Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in Week 2, and Baltimore knows Brown will be yet another elite test.
Humphrey became a starter for the first time in his NFL career in Pittsburgh last year. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted five times while covering Brown and gave up two catches for 18 yards. Humphrey said one of the things that impresses him most about Brown is his stamina.
"He doesn't really get tired," Humphrey said. "He is just a guy that you can tell is in probably some of the best shape out of any receivers you play against. He's on one side of the field, on the other side of the field, going in motion, going on a sweep, getting a screen, so he does so much.
"It's guys like that, along with A.J. [Green], the guys we've seen in our division, it's kind of a guy that down the line, you'll look back and say you were going against some of the best, and you can only know how good you are when you go against the best."
Despite being an emotional player, Brown doesn't do much trash-talking, according to Humphrey.
"He doesn't really chirp that much," Humphrey said. "The first time I played him, I thought he would chirp a lot, but he doesn't really chirp a lot. He's a guy who just knows his skill set, knows what he can do. He tries to go out there and just beat you one-on-one."
Brown has hurt the Ravens enough that his play has spoken for itself. That is a trend the Ravens hope to change Sunday. At the same time, they also can't lose focus of JuJu Smith-Schuster either. Smith-Schuster leads Pittsburgh in catches (27) and receiving yards (356).
"JuJu, it's crazy that he's kind of putting up some better numbers than 'A.B,'" Humphrey said. "So, he's definitely a guy you have to be alert of."
Ravens Will Not Face Le'Veon Bell, But Know James Conner Can Hurt Them
It looks like the Ravens won't face star running back Le'Veon Bell on Sunday, thanks to his extended contract holdout. That is a break for the Ravens, but the Steelers are still running the ball effectively.
James Conner is averaging 3.9 yards per carry as their lead back and has scored three touchdowns. While Conner doesn't have Bell's elusiveness or pass-catching ability, the Ravens defense is not expecting an easy time.
"It's different. [Connor] is more of a downhill, right now kind of guy. So you definitely have to be on your keys early," defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. "Just knowing Le'Veon, he's a bounce around guy. You have to stay assignment strong every second of the play. But those downhill runs hit quick, and they can be just as effective, if not more."
"Bell is a guy you can't really replace," Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey added. "But I feel like Conner has done a pretty good job. He's a tough runner, hard, north-south guy, so we'll definitely have to be alert for him."
Ravens safety Eric Weddle says taking Conner lightly would be a huge mistake.
"The minute we start slighting Conner, he's going to end up going for like 400 yards against us," Weddle said. "We respect everyone on their team. Le'Veon's not there, so there's no point in talking about him. He's one of the best players in the league. Having him in there makes their team better. But Conner has shown he can carry the ball, 25-30 times, catch the ball out of the backfield. Their offense really hasn't changed. They're going to run what they're going to run."
Joe Flacco Relishes Another Matchup vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Joe Flacco's admiration for Ben Roethlisberger goes back to college, when Flacco was attending the University of Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger arrived in town as a Steelers rookie. Flacco had no idea that once he joined the NFL, he would square off twice a year against Roethlisberger in a special rivalry.
The Steelers and Ravens have had their defensive struggles, but in recent years, both quarterbacks in have put up impressive numbers in these rivalry games.
"The last few times we've played up there, they've turned into a little mini-shootouts and they've been a lot of fun to be a part of," Flacco said. "We just haven't come out on the right end of it. Honestly, Ben's one of those guys … it's just cool to go into that stadium and play against those guys and play against him. It definitely is a little bit of a neat experience for me."
The Ravens have averaged 27.7 points per game over their last four visits to Pittsburgh, and Heinz Field is one of Flacco's favorite places to play. Off to one of the best starts of his career (six touchdowns, two interceptions, 92.8 quarterback rating), Flacco could be trending toward another strong performance in Pittsburgh.
"Going up there to Heinz Field and playing … it's one of the few times, I think, during the year that you actually step on the field and say to yourself, 'Man, I'm an NFL football player and this is exactly what it should feel like,''' Flacco said.
Sunday Will be Another Challenge for Ravens Offensive Line
Only the Chicago Bears have more sacks (14) than the Steelers (11), who are tied for second place with the Dallas Cowboys.
That presents a challenge on two fronts for the Ravens' offensive line. Can they protect Flacco from the Steelers' pass rush? And can they open holes for Alex Collins and Javorius Allen in the run game, which has sputtered so far?
The Ravens offensive line did a solid job in pass protection Week 3 against Denver, but Flacco was sacked four times during their only road game in Cincinnati. If the Ravens can generate a running game, it will help them neutralize the Pittsburgh pass rush.
"We know we have to do better," right tackle James Hurst said. "We relish that opportunity to run the ball and impose your will on the defense."