PRESTON: Ravens bickering with Steelers looming

MIKE PRESTON, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
  • Baltimore visits Pittsburgh at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in an AFC North showdown.
  • The Steelers enter the game at 9-5, while Baltimore comes in at 8-6.
  • The Ravens have won six of the last seven vs. the Steelers, including four straight.

The Baltimore Ravens will play the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in a game that will have significant impact on the AFC North championship.

It could also save the Ravens from themselves.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, left, is sacked by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matt Judon during a recent game. The Steelers and Ravens, bitter rivals in the AFC North, will square off at 4:30 p.m. on Christmas.

The Ravens (8-6) are teetering on the brink of collapse.

They might make you believe something different, but a lot of the warning signs are there. The receivers are fed up with the quarterback, the running backs want more carries, the head coach recently threw the offensive coordinator under the bus and the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL now has problems.

Bring on the Steelers (9-5), please.

Maybe for nearly four hours on Christmas Day, the Ravens will focus on their arch rival and put the other issues behind them. They have a cause to rally around, and winning the division championship is always a top priority.

"This is what you live for," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "It's all the hours, all the sacrifice, all the time — it's for a chance to win the division and get into the dance. You hope and dream every day you're getting up at 6 a.m. or 5 a.m., you don't see your kids — it's for this chance, and it's all worth it.

"We'll be ready to roll. There is nothing more out there for us than to have a chance at the division against a rival team. It's going to be amazing."

In need of a challenge: The Ravens need a challenge. After Sunday's 27-26 win against Philadelphia, the atmosphere in the locker room was more of a loser than a winner. The Ravens had to hang on in the closing seconds in a game they should have easily won.

As he sat on a bench, Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs stared at floor with a stone face. The Ravens were tired and worn down, and Suggs had some strong discussions with some of the offensive assistant coaches.

On offense, the Ravens are an unhappy bunch. You can see it in the temper tantrum receiver Mike Wallace threw on the sideline Sunday, or by the way his fellow receivers ran pass patterns.

Flacco not real popular right now: A lot of their unhappiness is with quarterback Joe Flacco. Passes haven't been delivered when receivers come out of breaks. They don't want to get hammered breaking back to the ball, which is why some of them, including veteran Steve Smith Sr., have short-armed catches in the last three weeks.

They are tired of being the No. 2 and No. 3 options in pass routes because Flacco doesn't always go through his progressions, and seems to prefer going to his backs or tight ends if his primary targets aren't open.

They've had enough.

In his defense, Flacco hasn't always had time in the pocket to find the other options. But his mechanics are still poor, something the coaching staff has been critical of for years.

Flacco also didn't endear himself to fans after Sunday's game when he said he was happy about offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's decision to let him pass instead of running the ball when the Ravens were threatening to put away the game in the fourth quarter. Flacco's late interception almost cost the Ravens the game.

Other complaints: But if it's not Flacco's receivers complaining, then its defensive end Timmy Jernigan wanting more playing time or running back Terrance West seeking more carries. There was also John Harbaugh calling Mornhinweg's decision to pass late in the game Sunday the "all-time worst call ever."

Very seldom does a head coach criticize his coordinator so strongly in public. Even though Harbaugh said he was accountable for the decision as head coach, those words had to at least hurt Morninweg's credibility with the players.

So, John — with the strong criticism of his offensive coordinator, and with Wallace's episode on the sideline, are you concerned about the attitude of your coaching staff and players?

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"First of all, I would dispute the first part of the question because that's not the case," Harbaugh said. "That's exactly what I didn't say. And then secondly, we want guys that want to compete. That's what we're all about here, and that's what we've always been about. We want hard-nosed, tough guys that want to compete.

"If he slammed his helmet down after catching a 60-yard pass to put us into the red zone, he was probably pretty excited about the play. If all of those receivers want the ball, I want them to have the ball. I want them to have the ball, and I want them to make plays, and I want them to block, and I want them all to want to win and compete. So it's an emotional game, and you better have emotional guys that like to play it because it's a hard game to play."

Steelers game comes at right time: Emotion is one thing, but declining to congratulate a teammate or brushing off another when he comes to congratulate you is another. That's why the Ravens need to play Pittsburgh.

With the exception of possibly New England, no other team can draw so much of their focus. If the attention is splintered like it was after the game Sunday, they will lose. They might even get blown out.

But the Ravens will focus. They have too much pride and Pittsburgh brings out the best in them. Smith might be down on Flacco right now, but he has a disdain for Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell.

Wallace pouted Sunday, but he'll be energized in Heinz Field, his old playpen from when he was a Steeler. The Ravens' run defense has struggled for the past two weeks but this group will turn it up a notch against Pittsburgh.

Toughness will matter: This game is about toughness. The Ravens won't completely shut down Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell, but they will work extremely hard to slow him. It's a pride thing. It's Steelers week.

Whenever the Ravens play Pittsburgh, records don't matter. The Ravens have won six of the last seven, including four straight, against the Steelers. A week ago the Ravens lost to the Patriots on Monday Night Football and it put the club in a funk because the Ravens thought it would be a closer game. It wasn't even as close as the 30-23 final score indicates.

The coaching staff spent most of last week virtually apologizing for the effort, and it was embarrassing at times. They should have moved on sooner. The Ravens didn't have much intensity against the Eagles. It was as if they were still in mourning.

Boswell's six field goals help Steelers storm back

But that won't happen Sunday. There is too much at stake, too much history when these teams are involved. Instead of unhappiness, the Ravens will bring all their energy to Pittsburgh. They might be unified for just this game or maybe for the rest of the season.

But this game couldn't have come at a better time.