Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has yet to flinch in four career games against the Pittsburgh Steelers - and they have given him plenty of cause.
In three losses to the Steelers last season, Flacco was sacked 10 times, threw five interceptions and lost a critical fumble that became a quick seven points for Pittsburgh.
Less than a month ago, the Steelers again pounded Flacco - for five more sacks - though he achieved payback in a 20-17 overtime victory. With 289 passing yards and no turnovers, it was easily the best of his four games against the Ravens' biggest rival.
All of which sets the stage for Sunday's semi-epic encounter at Heinz Field, where the Steelers try to avoid playoff elimination and the Ravens continue their push for at least an AFC wild card. In the backyard brawl that the Ravens-Steelers rivalry has become, protecting Flacco comes with the highest priority.
"This will be my fifth time playing them in two years," Flacco said. "You definitely get used to playing these guys. They're a great team, they cause disruption, and it's up to our front guys, our offensive line and defensive line, to stop that from happening and create some plays on the defensive side of the ball. I think if we do that and play good up front, then we have a good chance to win this game."
The Steelers have struggled mightily in pass coverage this season, but they still rank fourth in the NFL in sack rate (40 overall) and first in rush defense (83.1 yards per game). Defusing that pressure up front is no small task.
"It goes back to receivers getting separation so the ball can come out fast, [to] Joe getting his feet underneath him so the ball can come out fast, making great decisions," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "[Also] mixing up the running game; the running game plays huge in the pass protection in a variety of ways. It's going to be a collective effort and a collective game-plan effort because these guys create one of the toughest challenges in the league, especially on the edge."
The Steelers send 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (10 sacks) off one edge and LaMarr Woodley (9.5 sacks) off the other. In the likely continued absence of Jared Gaither (foot injury), rookie Michael Oher and second-year man Oniel Cousins will be charged with keeping Harrison and Woodley at bay at left and right tackle, respectively. That arrangement also would seem to call for more of converted guard Chris Chester as a second tight end.
Oher has excelled going back and forth from right to left tackle as Gaither battles injuries. Cousins, with two NFL starts, played well in one and not so well in the second. Chester seems more than capable in his new role.
Right guard Marshal Yanda, who returned to the starting lineup for the first Pittsburgh game, said the Ravens have to be mentally and physically in tune to handle the relentless Steelers defense.
"On third down, they try to walk guys around and try to confuse you, make you go to the wrong guy," Yanda said. "They're trying to get us confused, so they can have their playmakers make a play. We have to be physical at the same time. We have to be razor sharp on picking the [defensive line] games up and knowing who we're going to block."
In the Nov. 29 overtime game at M&T Bank Stadium, the Steelers were able to achieve confusion and win some one-on-one battles.
"They got us a couple times on some missed communications between us and the back," Yanda said. "We got that squared away. We don't want any free runners running through the gaps and hitting Joe."
Personnel changes will be prominent for both teams. The Ravens aren't expected to have Ed Reed (hip), and the Steelers probably won't have Troy Polamalu (knee). They are the NFL's two premier safeties. The Steelers did not have Polamalu in the first game this season.
"They play a little different in the back end when Polamalu isn't there," Flacco said. "They have different coverages that maybe those [other defensive backs] play a little better. They can do different things with Troy, and let him free roam. But they're still relying on their tops guys ... to make some plays, cause some disruptions, get some turnovers and change the game that way."
The Ravens beat the Steelers in November with a huge game from running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 88 yards and went for 44 more on a fourth-down pass that helped send the game to overtime. Since then, the Ravens have added wide-out Demetrius Williams as a playmaker and should get wide receiver Mark Clayton (hamstring) back as well.
Williams made dazzling catches of 34 and 32 yards in the past two games to give Flacco a downfield alternative to Derrick Mason.
"His confidence is going up each week," Flacco said of Williams. "He's getting a chance to make plays on a play-to-play basis, not sprinkled in here and there. When you give a guy enough chances, a guy as talented as he is, he's going to make a majority of them for you."