Ravens looking to leapfrog Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Exactly one year ago today, Baltimore Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti hired coach John Harbaugh to replace Brian Billick after Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett turned down his initial offer. Now, the Ravens' acknowledged second choice has steered and cajoled a retooled football team into the AFC championship game today against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens (13-5) are preparing for the third installment of their annual grudge match against the AFC North champions at Heinz Field.

Between tabbing Harbaugh as their head coach and how he instilled a harder edge in a veteran squad, general manager Ozzie Newsome maneuvering in the first round to draft Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco and signing key free agents in offensive tackle Willie Anderson, fullback Lorenzo Neal and strong safety Jim Leonhard, the Ravens' journey to within one victory of reaching the Super Bowl has represented a combination of hard work, good fortune and been a testament to improved locker room chemistry.

It all began with Harbaugh changing attitudes20around the Ravens' training complex, fostering camaraderie by mixing up the locker room and creating more of a blue-collar atmosphere in the weight room and practice field.

"I think he's the ultimate players' coach," star middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "John is one of us. During the week, on game day, all of that, he relates to his players very well. Everything that we do as an organization and as a team, it's just not done through the coaches.

"It's done through a lot of conversations with the players and really trying to figure each other out. Now, the process is that we trust each so much that, 'Let's just deal with the way it is.' John is a great, great, great guy."

For Harbaugh, his progression from an obscure Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach into one of the 32 members of an elite fraternity that lead NFL teams didn't really sink in until early August.

That was when he stood at the 50-yard line field at Gillette Stadium, stared across the field and saw imperious New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick looking back at him.

"It's been a great experience," Harbaugh said. "I had never been through a game as a head coach. It's a new role and a new set of responsibilities, and I didn't really know what to expect. Having come out of that game, it made sense. That was probably the one moment, I would say.

"We were always preparing. Our team was preparing to be a real good football team in December and to try to become a gre at football team in January. And now we're sitting here with an opportunity to prove that. So, it feels like we're right where we need to be."

Nearly six months later, Harbaugh's sixth-seeded team is on the cusp of advancing to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., if the Ravens can topple the Steelers after losing two games to Pittsburgh by a total of seven points during the season.

Yet, Harbaugh won't waste time on introspection or dwelling on decisions that have worked or gone awry. There will be plenty of time for pondering during the offseason.

"Maybe when it's all said and done, you look back and say, 'Okay, this is where we've grown, this is where we need to get better,'" Harbaugh said. "All of us will do that. You try to improve from one year to the next, but I just haven't really given that too much thought. We've got a game on Sunday. Who's got time to think about that stuff?"

The Ravens have endured having 19 players placed on injured reserve, including cornerback Chris McAlister, nose guard Kelly Gregg and strong safety Dawan Landry, to rank second in the NFL. Baltimore lost 64 games by starters due to injuries, 14 more than any other playoff team and the fourth-highest figure in the NFL.

"It has been fun to be a part of it," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It's a marathon, and you want to finish it right. It's a cliché, but we come in every day and we do our jobs and take care of our responsibilities. We don't focus on the problems. Somehow in our own style, we find a way to win at the end."

Resiliency has defined the Ravens' march deep into the playoffs, winning 11 of their past 13 games.

"It's kind of crazy just thinking about the path that this team has taken throughout this season," said Leonhard, who has ably replaced Landry after he was ruled out for the season after suffering a spinal cord concussion against the Cleveland Browns."To be one win away from the Super Bowl is amazing. Hopefully, it won't sink in until after the game."

This will mark the Ravens' 18th consecutive week in a row of playing a game since their bye was lost when Hurricane Ike postponed their second game of the year against the Houston Texans until early November.

"I was talking to my trainer and he's like, 'How are you playing?' and I said, 'I'm hanging on by a very thin rope, my friend,'" defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "I think we all are. We're all a little tired and what not. What Harbs has done is that he's found a way to preserve us during the weeks so we can put it on the line on Sunday."

A hallmark of the team has been not complaining about its circumstances. Wide receiver Derrick Mason dislocated his left shoulder against the Texans on Nov. 9, and has played in extreme pain ever since.

"Have we been hurt, injured? Yeah," Mason said. "But out of gas? This team is never out of gas. We've got a lot of gas left in us. Out of gas? No, we're not."

Led by a traditionally stingy defense that ranks second in the NFL behind the top-ranked Steelers, the Ravens finally have a quarterback they can count on after years of horrendous play under center.

That watershed change began when the Ravens decided to draft Flacco out of the Division I-AA ranks rather than trade up for Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. Although Ryan was named the NFL Rookie of the Year as the Atlanta Falcons' starter and posted superior statistics, it's Flacco who is still in the playoffs and it's Ryan who lost to the Arizona Cardinals in the first round as he threw an interception, had a fumble returned for a touchdown and was sacked for a safety.

Meanwhile, Flacco has yet to throw an interception or be sacked over the past two weeks in becoming the first rookie to win two playoff games in NFL history.

From playing against the likes of Hofstra and Towson last year to excelling against top-notch NFL defenses now, Flacco has shown uncommon maturity and a stoic attitude. He's not inclined, though, to reflection.

"No, not really," he said. "I just put my head down and I'll look up when the season is over. Even then, I'm not sure I'll realize what has just happened. It's been a lot of fun this season. We still have two more left in our minds and we're not going to be satisfied unless we get there."

Flacco's 89.4 quarterback rating in a 13-10 AFC divisional playoff win over the Tennessee Titans last week is the best for a rookie in league playoff history.

Flacco threw one touchdown with seven interceptions in his first five NFL starts as he registered a paltry 60.6 quarterback rating and Baltimore got off to a 2-3 start, tossing 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions over the final 11 regular-season games with a 90.2 rating and a 9-2 record.

"He has come so far, but he was pretty good coming in," Harbaugh said. "He's a guy we believe in. We're proud of guys who play like Ravens and we think Joe plays like a Raven. That's why he's here. Our guys believe in him, and we'll be proud to stand next to him on Sunday night."

As for Garrett, whom Bisciotti offered the job to first before going with Harbaugh, he opted to stay with the Cowboys for a $3 million annual salary. However, his star has fallen. He has interviewed for several head coaching jobs, but is unlikely to land any of them.

Garrett clashed with combustible wide receiver Terrell Owens and is no longer as highly regarded in Dallas after quarterback Tony Romo's game slipped late in the season after an injury.

Maintaining the approach taught to him by his father, former college football coach Jack Harbaugh, and Eagles coach Andy Reid, Harbaugh's theme of consistency has paid major dividends in Baltimore.

"He's been the same, his message hasn't changed," Mason said. "His demeanor hasn't changed, attitude, whatever it may be. Whether we came off a loss or a win, he's been the same coach and I think that's good for the players. They see that regardless of what the situation is that we have a coach that's steady.

"He's not going to get too high. He's not going to get too low. His message continues to be the same: Work hard, let this day be the best day you've ever had as a team. Everyone has bought into it and every time we go out there to practice we try to make that the best day that we've had as a team. He hasn't changed."

In his 16th NFL season, Neal isn't sure how many more of these opportunities will beckon.

So, he wants to be sure the Ravens take advantage of this classic matchup between two AFC North bullies and finish the ta sk at hand. "I think we were blessed to get here, but we're not here by luck," Neal said. "We're here through opportunity and destiny. I want to play hard for 60 minutes, and at the end of it there can be no greater sound than to hear, 'The Baltimore Ravens are going to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.' That's all I care about."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital

Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

By Aaron Wilson

NICKEL PACKAGE

1. Will injuries prevent the Baltimore Ravens from making the Super Bowl?

Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will be a game-time decision with a painful right shoulder injury, and cornerback Samari Rolle is doubtful with a groin injury. If they're sidelined or limited for today's AFC title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, it represents a major blow for the Ravens' burgeoning Super Bowl hopes. The Ravens' defense has faltered late against the Steelers in a pair of narrow losses by a combined total of seven points. In the first meeting in Pittsburgh, Baltimore allowed running back Mewelde Moore to catch a 24-yard pass to set up Jeff Reed's 46-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. Last month in Baltimore, the Ravens lost on Santonio Holmes' controversial touchdown catch to finish off a decisive 92-yard drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger. If Rolle is out, the Steelers may go after replacement cornerback Frank Walker. He has played well, but Rolle is the Ravens' top cover corner.

2. Can the Ravens contain Roethlisberger? He's been a Ravens killer over the years and is extremely hard to bring down. He may be the most accurate quarterback in the league while throwing on the move. In both of the Ravens' losses, Roethlisberger made huge plays while scrambling in the fourth quarter to buy his receivers enough time to create separation. Roethlisberger is adept at shrugging off tacklers in the backfield.

3. Will rookie quarterback Joe Flacco have enough time to throw?

The Steelers' fearsome pass rush is led by outside linebacker James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. It's critical that the offensive line give Flacco enough time to locate his receivers downfield. Although Flacco has completed eight throws of 30 yards or higher in the past three weeks, he has yet to complete a pass of more than 30 yards against the Steelers. Veteran Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau runs a complicated zone-blitz schemes that generates maximum pressure and collapses the pocket. The Ravens need to shut down the edges. To do so, they might need Flacco to roll out more than usual and throw on the run. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron may need to get out of his run, run, pass pattern and be less predictable for the Ravens to win the game.

4. Can the Ravens shut down the running game?

Willie Parker has traditionally had precious little success against the Ravens' stingy defense. He's coming off a strong game against the Chargers, but running against the Ravens' front seven is like trying to run through a brick wall. The Steelers are 6-0 when Parker gains at least 70 yards, and the Ravens looked vulnerable against another fast running back a week ago against the Tennessee Titans' speed rookie runner Chris Johnson.

5. Can the Ravens slow down Holmes while generating some turnovers?

Holmes has averaged 72.5 receiving yards in his past four games against Baltimore with five touchdowns. If Roethlisberger presses the issue and throws deep to Holmes, that could create opportunities for Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed to intercept the football. Against San Diego, Roethlisberger didn't have a turnover because he didn't force the football into coverage and avoided the big sack. The Ravens have a plus-seven turnover margin in two playoff games with eight turnovers and one lost fumble. For the season, they're 10-2 when they force more than one turnover.

INSIDE SLANT: KEY MATCHUPS

Baltimore Ravens OT Jared Gaither vs. Steelers OLB James Harrison

It's critical that Gaither do a superb job of shadowing the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in pass-blocking situations. The 6-foot-9, 330-pound former University of Maryland player will need all of his physical tools and athleticism to contain Harrison, a relentless pass rusher who recorded 16 sacks in the regular season and one in the playoff victory against the San Diego Chargers. Gaither held Harrison to no sacks in the last meeting in Baltimore. Harrison has outstanding speed and change-of-direction skills. He's not nearly as big as Gaither, but has a formidable bull rush. As usual, Gaither will have assistance whenever Harrison is positioned across from him at the line of scrimmage.

Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. Steelers S Troy Polamalu

The Steelers are the lone AFC North team that the rookie hasn't improved against in the second encounter. Flacco has completed just 45.7 percent of his passes in two games against the Steelers, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions. Flacco had an 89.4 passer rating in his last game, the best single-game rating for a rookie quarterback in NFL playoff history. Polamalu has outstanding range and pass recognition capabilities as well as soft hands, intercepting seven passes during the regular season. He's recovering from a strained calf, but is expected to play and be at nearly full strength after returning to practice this week. This will be the biggest test of Flacco's highly regarded composure.

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Ravens coach John Harbaugh

1. On rookie quarterback Joe Flacco: "Joe just is himself. That's how he leads. He's very good at what he does. When you're a quarterback, you've got the ball in your hands and it probably makes you a natural leader. He doesn't try to be anything he's not. That's probably where it starts. He's genuine.

"He's probably the beneficiary of experience. Plus, he's had success and the guys believe in him a little bit more. He's grown into the role in that sense because he's done well. Beyond that, he's still the same guy."

2. On Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: "I've known Mike for a long time as a coach and all of us on our staff, most of us, have known Mike for a long time. He's done a great job in the last two years. Nobody is surprised by that. Everybody saw way back when at a young age he was going to be this kind of a coach. So, he hasn't disappointed anybody."

3. On his title game experience with the Eagles: "Experience helps in any situation. Certainly. Throughout your whole career, as a player, coach, whatever, you take all those things and you apply them and you just have a sense for what you want to do. Having been in four championship games, that's a plus. We've been through it, we've seen how we've practiced, what it takes to win, what costs you games.

"Maybe that's something that you apply. It's not direct application, because everything is different, every year is different, every group of guys is different. But, you take what you've learned and you try to apply it the best you can to the situation that presents."

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin

1. On the Ravens' ability to create turnovers: "It's not that they do things that are drastically different that other people. They're just more successful at it. I think that everybody that's playing here in the playoffs recognizes that ball security is a big part of staying alive. They've found a way to maintain possession of the ball, and, probably more importantly, they've taken the ball away from people who generally don't turn it over. I think that that's been as impressive as anything."

2. On if his team's confidence is growing after thrashing the Chargers: "No. No. Last week's performance is last week's performance. It'd make that previous statement I made untrue. We're just preparing for this one. We had success last week. It was a good performance, but it has no bearing on how we're going to play or prepare this week. We've got to respect that element of it as we prepare."

3. On Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco: "You know, I don't know what necessarily makes him special at doing that. That's just who he is. I hear what they say about him and that he has a calm demeanor. I think that works to his favor. When we played these guys the first time this year, we were up on them and he took them down the field and sent that game into overtime. I think at that point I realized that we were going to have to deal with this guy for a long time."


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