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Ravens’ Stellar Second-Half Defense Will be Tested by Steelers

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Through three games, the Ravens have not allowed a second-half touchdown.

In the first half, Ravens opponents have scored 42 points and six touchdowns. But in the second half, the Ravens have surrendered just nine points on three field goals.

While the Ravens’ second-half defense has been impressive, it will be severely tested Sunday night in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the NFL’s second-ranked offense averaging 453.3 yards per game, even without star running back Le’Veon Bell, who has been holding out in a contract dispute.

That is one reason the Ravens are downplaying their second-half defensive success. It’s Steelers Week. Asked about the Ravens’ second-half defense, Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale didn’t want to go there.

“It’s like a no-hitter, we don’t talk about that,” Martindale said.

Head Coach John Harbaugh took the same approach.

“Just call it coincidence,” Harbaugh said. “That probably will do for now. That’d be good. I’ll take that option.”

Nobody needs to remind the Ravens of their recent inability to stop the Steelers with the game on the line. In their last two games against the Ravens at Heinz Field, the Steelers have averaged 20 points in the fourth quarter. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has been a nightmare for the Ravens in clutch situations.

“He’s the matrix,” Martindale said of Brown.

However, the Ravens hope this trip to Pittsburgh will be different. During the first three weeks, Baltimore has made successful defensive adjustments even after starting poorly.

The Ravens looked lost defensively during the first half in Cincinnati, giving up four straight touchdown drives immediately after inside linebacker C.J. Mosley left the game with a knee injury. Yet, the Ravens regrouped at halftime. Safety Eric Weddle took over duties calling the defensive signals, and the Ravens held the Bengals to just six points in the second half.

Against the Broncos in Week 3, the Ravens overcame another terrible start. A blocked punt set up Denver’s first touchdown, then Baltimore was fooled on a reverse, allowing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to run 35 yards untouched for a touchdown.

The Broncos had 14 points less than 10 minutes into the game. Yet, they never scored again. Kenny Young (10 tackles) and Patrick Onwuasor (interception) were superb at inside linebacker in Mosley’s abscence, and in Martindale’s first season as coordinator, the Ravens continued to display an ability to fix problems quickly.

“It’s been adjustments and great coaching and putting ourselves, as a defense, in the best position possible to be successful in the second half,” Weddle said. “Once we get our bearings right, make some adjustments and figure out what they’re trying to do to attack us, we can show off our defense. We have to continue that this week and the rest of the season.”

However, containing the Steelers offense in Pittsburgh has been an enormous problem for the Ravens. Last December in Pittsburgh, the Steelers scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to steal a come-from-behind 39-38 victory. That loss played a pivotal role in costing Baltimore a playoff berth.

In 2016, with the AFC North title at stake, the Steelers scored 21 points against the Ravens in the fourth quarter, capped by Brown contorting his body and stretching the football over the goal line. Brown’s 4-yard go-ahead touchdown in the final minute lifted Pittsburgh to a 31-27 victory and knocked the Ravens out of the postseason.

The Ravens were without veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith in both of those games, and he has matched up well with Brown in the past. Smith won’t play again Sunday, serving the final game of his four-game NFL suspension. That makes containing Brown even more challenging for the Ravens.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a marvel in the two-minute offense, and Brown is arguably the league’s best receiver. Last December against the Ravens, Roethlisberger completed 44 of 66 passes for 506 yards and two touchdowns. When reminded of those Roethlisberger stats this week, Weddle didn’t want to believe them.

“He had 500 yards against us?” Weddle asked incredulously. “I thought we controlled him for the most part until the end. Obviously, my memory’s lost. As of right now, we’re 2-1, and they’re 1-1-1. We’ll see what happens this week. Obviously, we have to play great as a defense to have a chance to win.”

The Ravens devoted extra time to two-minute defense during training camp. After heartbreaking endings in two consecutive seasons, the Ravens have vowed to play better defense when it matters most.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Weddle said. “We’ve been in two-minute situations this season and we’ve been successful at them.”

However, dealing with the Steelers’ offense will be the Ravens’ biggest defensive challenge to date. So, if you want the Ravens to boast about their second-half defense this week, don’t hold your breath.

“I understand that everyone wants to write a story. I understand that, but we need to talk about that after Week 16,” Martindale said. “John’s goal is, win the next game.”

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