Steelers DBs ready for Ravens -- this time

The Pittsburgh secondary has played well the last two games. The group will most likely be on the spot Sunday night against the Ravens.

PITTSBURGH – Much like Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers' locker room, Le'Ron McClain has been limping his way around the Ravens' locker room this week.

But unlike Roethlisberger, McClain isn't expected to play Sunday night.

Of course, comparing fullbacks to quarterbacks is like comparing apples to oranges. But to the Ravens, McClain – a two-time Pro Bowler – would be a critical loss to their power running game.

"He does a lot for that offense," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "He's an integral part. I think it's going to affect them a little bit."

Is the loss enough to swing the Ravens' game plan to throwing the ball more often on the Steelers?

"We're trying to figure that out," Farrior said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they did."

It's how others – including the Ravens – have beaten the Steelers this season. In the previous meeting between the two teams, Joe Flacco threw 37 passes, the most he's attempted in six career meetings with the Steelers.

Flacco also engineered a 4-pass, game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute that, as Steelers fans had feared, kick-started the best stretch of quarterbacking of his burgeoning career.

"No doubt about it," Farrior said. "Flacco started off slow but he's really picked it up the last seven weeks."

Since beating the Steelers, Flacco has put together a better 7-game stretch than Roethlisberger. Flacco has completed 67.3 percent of his passes during that span, with 13 touchdown passes and only 2 interceptions. His passer rating the last seven games is 108.2. Roethlisberger's is 99.1.

But the loss of the Pro Bowl fullback and Flacco's improvement are only two reasons the Steelers should expect the normally conservative Ravens to come out winging Sunday night.

The other two reasons have to do with the Steelers' defense.

Since Aaron Smith was injured in Game 6, the Steelers' run defense hasn't fallen off much. With Smith, the Steelers allowed 63.7 yards rushing per game. In the last five games, they've allowed 64.4 and have easily retained the NFL's No. 1 ranking against the run.

They're far from the top against the pass. The Steeler rank 22nd in passing yards allowed per game. It's the avenue the Ravens, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots took to beat the Steelers this season.

But, the Steelers' secondary has improved since Tom Brady carved them up three weeks ago. In the last two games, the Steelers have allowed a completion percentage of 48.9 percent, off significantly from the 67.5 percent the rest of the season. The opposing passer rating in those two games was 50.2; again off significantly from the 85.6 rating the rest of the season.

Not that the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills are to be confused with the Saints and Patriots, but the Steelers did hold both the Raiders and Bills well below their numbers (a combined 55.9 percent completed, 74.4 passer rating) for the season.

The Steelers won't credit Brady for their inspired and improved play of late. They instead point to an increased aggressiveness that's come from playing more man-to-man press coverage.

"We're doing it a lot more," said cornerback William Gay. "It's something (secondary) coach Ray Horton wanted to try out."

Gay in particular drew coach Mike Tomlin's praise this week. Tomlin said Gay was "competitive and combative."

Sub-package cornerbacks Gay and Anthony Madison started the game last Sunday against Buffalo's 4-receiver package, and Gay moved up to replace Bryant McFadden when McFadden was injured during the game.

McFadden practiced Thursday and expects to play against the Ravens. The Steelers will need him against a receiving corps that's been led these last seven games by Derrick Mason. He's caught a team-high 32 passes for 414 yards and 3 touchdowns since the Ravens and Steelers last met. Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Todd Heap have each caught more than 20 passes each during that span as well.

"Those last couple of groups we went against had some talented, athletic, up-and-coming guys," said McFadden. "But these guys are veterans. Mason doesn't look like he's in his 14th year because he's one of the best route-runners in the league. He's playing at a high level along with Boldin and the rest of the guys. They've just seen it all."

And if the Ravens come out winging Sunday night, everyone will have seen it all.

But the Steelers just might be ready for them.

"We see the improvement and it's something we want to continue," McFadden said. "If you were to ask me, I'd rather the numbers be better towards the end than the beginning. You'd always like to finish strong. We still have a long way to go, but it is a bright spot."

NOTES – Roethlisberger practiced on a limited basis again Thursday, but expects to play Sunday night. Reserve CB Keenan Lewis (illness) and TE Matt Spaeth (concussion) missed Thursday's practice.


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