Steelers, Ravens prep for ... shootout?

The Steelers and Ravens will play another critical AFC game this afternoon, but no one should expect the punishing defensive play that marked last season's title game.

PITTSBURGH – Steelers play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove wrapped up last Sunday's frenetic 37-36 win over the Green Bay Packers by calling it the greatest game ever played at Heinz Field, and many have since supported that pronouncement.

How quickly they forget.

The Steelers and Baltimore Ravens engaged in the most fiercely contested matchup ever played at Heinz Field only 11 months earlier in the AFC Championship Game.

It was a game seemingly played in a distant era, an era in which the Nos. 1 and 2 defenses in the league brutally slugged it out to play in the Super Bowl.

The Steelers outlasted the Ravens, 23-14, when Troy Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco late in the fourth quarter and returned it for a touchdown. But Polamalu is gone, and so, too, it seems is the Steelers' defense as the team prepares to win a shootout today against the 8-6 Ravens.

That the 7-7 Steelers still rank sixth in total defense might be an indication of the league as a whole, as the ever-changing rules have continued to aid offenses, particularly the passing attacks. The Steelers and Ravens, in fact, have improved their pass offenses from 17th and 28th, respectively, last season to 6th and 13th this season.

Ben Roethlisberger already owns Steelers records with 3,849 passing yards and 302 completions this season. He needs 74 more passing attempts to break Tommy Maddox's record of 519 attempts in 2003.

Joe Flacco, in only his second season, needs 35 more completions and 832 yards to break Vinnie Testaverde's 13-year-old Ravens single-season passing records.

Some might suggest Flacco could break those records today at Heinz Field against the Steelers' porous secondary, and, if James Harrison misses the game with an injury, that might not be a joke.

Harrison, the Steelers' leading pass-rusher, injured his biceps Thursday at practice and is listed as questionable for the game. Polamalu and left guard Chris Kemoeatu have already been ruled out.

Polamalu's absence has left a gaping hole in a Steelers secondary that's allowed a passer rating of 93.3 (17 touchdowns, 1 interception) without him. With Polamalu on the field, the Steelers have allowed a passer rating of 53.4 (1 touchdown, 7 interceptions).

The Steelers are 4-1 when Polamalu starts, and 3-0 in games he starts and finishes. Of course, he doesn't believe he's the difference. But, what is the difference?

"Probably at this point it's a lot of something that's internal," said Polamalu. "We've just got to get the confidence back and get in those situations and win in those situations."

In terms of confidence, it became clear last Sunday against Green Bay that starting cornerback William Gay had lost his. He's been replaced this week by Deshea Townsend, the 12th-year veteran who'll make his first start of the season.

The Steelers' secondary will need to stop a revitalized Todd Heap (5-56, 2 TDs last week), veteran Derrick Mason (65-928-7) and leading receiver and rusher Ray Rice (210-1,128 rushing, 73-669 receiving), who buried the Steelers in the Ravens' overtime win in the earlier meeting.

Roethlisberger, though, missed that game with headaches from a concussion. He's coming off a team-record 503-yard passing performance against the Packers and will be eying up a depleted Ravens secondary in a game the Steelers must win to stay in the playoff race. The Ravens have listed safety Ed Reed as doubtful. He'll be replaced by Tom Zbikowski.

The Ravens also placed cornerback Lardarius Webb on injured reserve this week. He had replaced Fabian Washington, who went on IR after the 10th game. The Ravens have been without Samari Rolle all season. Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth are the Ravens' starting cornerbacks, with Frank Walker and just-signed Corey Ivy in return.

It all adds up to a potential repeat of last Sunday's Packers game, or a game as potentially dissimilar to last season's AFC title game as possible.

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