Revamped Ravens are a cause for concern

Ralph N. Paulk
| Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011

Typically, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is cautiously optimistic when the defending AFC champions face AFC North rival Baltimore.

As the Steelers prepare for their regular-season opener against the Ravens on Sunday, Tomlin appeared confident during Tuesday's news conference. Yet, a multitude of personnel changes with the Ravens has given him cause for concern.

The Ravens tried to beef up their ground game by acquiring Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach from the Houston Texans. He's expected to be the lead blocker for running back Ray Rice, who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of the past two seasons. And they added a deep-ball threat with former Buffalo receiver Lee Evans to complement three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin.

"Needless to say, not a lot needs to be said about the nature of this matchup," Tomlin said. "It's something that's extremely humbling and exciting to be a part of.

"I'm probably a little more uneasy as usual when we play these guys because they've got so many new guys that we have to account for. At this juncture in this series, they probably know more about us than we know about them."

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome has spent the past several seasons trying to figure out a way to conquer the Steelers, who have won three of the past four meetings and are 3-0 against the Ravens in the postseason — including a 31-24 win in last season's AFC divisional playoffs en route to their eighth Super Bowl.

"Ozzie and company have been active in the offseason improving their team," Tomlin said. "It's evident watching the preseason tape with some of the various new guys they have to play key positions."

The Ravens also signed former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, who spent the past seven seasons in Miami. They lured free-agent left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie from Minnesota, enabling them to move Michael Oher to right tackle with the hope of improving a steady run game and protecting quarterback Joe Flacco.

The Ravens also added five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode, who signed a one-year deal Sunday after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. Gurode is insurance if starting center Matt Birk, who didn't play in the preseason after having knee surgery Aug. 3, isn't available Sunday.

Flacco was sacked only four times during the preseason, but Ravens' backup QBs were sacked an additional 11 times.

"They have fortified themselves (on the offensive line)," said Tomlin, whose team was 7-1 on the road in 2010. "We expect them to be quite salty on Sunday."

Still, Tomlin concedes the biggest challenge facing the Steelers are the Ravens' familiar game-changers — linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, strong safety Ed Reed, Rice and Boldin.

"We've got a lot of new things to familiarize ourselves in terms of a supporting cast," Tomlin said. "The core guys are the same, and they understand what this matchup is about. But we have to acclimate ourselves to their new people."

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh is retooling the Ravens, in part, to match the Steelers physically. Harbaugh and Newsome added 349-pound defensive tackle Terrence Cody on the defensive front last season and drafted aggressive, sure-tackling rookie Jimmy Smith on the corner this year.

"(Smith) is a top pedigree guy," Tomlin said. "They were fortunate he was on the (draft) board when they took him."

So far, players from both teams have done a lot of talking leading up to Sunday's kickoff at M&T Bank Stadium. Tomlin emphasized that all that matters is execution — on each side of the line scrimmage.

"Ultimately, it'll come down to who can withstand the ebbs and flows of this series and make the necessary plays," Tomlin said. "Who's angry and who's not. What's said, what's not said. We all know it'll be irrelevant when the ball is kicked off.

"The root of the matter is we have two good football teams with the same intentions —that's to dominate the AFC North to put them in position to chase the Lombardi (Trophy), and it's why we'll always have issues with these guys.

"I expect their goals will be unchanged like ours. We are two trains on the same track."

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