PITTSBURGH (AP)Lamar Jackson can dazzle with his legs one play and drop dimes with his right arm the next.
Except, it seems, when he faces the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For all the electricity the Baltimore Ravens quarterback provides on a seemingly weekly basis, things tend to get sideways when he’s on one side of the line of scrimmage and T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are on the other. And Jackson knows it.
“The atmosphere is different,” he said. “It’s more intense, more aggressive.”
More difficult, too.
Jackson is 2-3 as a starter against the Steelers, although he missed both of Baltimore’s games against Pittsburgh last season due to injury. He’s thrown more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (four) when facing Baltimore’s longtime rival. The next time he runs the ball into the end zone against Pittsburgh will be his first.
So while the Ravens (3-1) easily looked like the best team in the AFC North in September, they are taking nothing for granted when they open October by visiting the wildly uneven Steelers (2-2), who are struggling to play with any consistency or cohesion.
“Hopefully, it’s a different outcome this season,” Jackson said.
It can’t be if Pittsburgh wants to be considered a threat in what could be the most balanced division in football. The Steelers were pushed around by Houston a week ago, and coach Mike Tomlin said team simply didn’t play hard enough.
While he promised “changes” in the aftermath, Tomlin’s only real tweak was to do something he was probably going to do anyway: have his players practice in pads for the first time in a few weeks in hopes of helping them hit the reset button.
Pittsburgh doesn’t really have much of a choice. The Steelers have struggled to get a handle on opposing running games without injured defensive tackle Cam Heyward. Now here comes Jackson and the NFL’s fourth-ranked running offense.
In a way, it may be the best thing for the Steelers.
“It kind of forces you do to your job, for younger guys to grow up, for everybody to just play harder,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “It’s a divisional game. You know what they’re doing. They know what you’re doing. It’s really about who is going to whip who.”
The Ravens have 12 touchdowns in 15 red-zone opportunities, and their defense has allowed just three TDs in 10 trips. Jackson’s running has been a big threat in that area. He already has four rushing touchdowns, three shy of his career high.
“The defense gives us the look for me to run, or my number’s called, and whatever it’s going to take for us to get in the end zone, I’m going to do it,” Jackson said. “I’m going to try to do it at least 100 miles per hour. If the defense gives us that look, that’s what it’ll be.”
Pittsburgh’s offense was expected to take significant strides forward after a promising preseason. It hasn’t happened. The Steelers are near the bottom of the league in points, yards and first downs through four games, intensifying the scrutiny around offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Running back Najee Harris, however, doesn’t think the game plan is the problem. Harris believes the offense was too “soft” against the Texans. He’d like to see a return to the run-first approach the Steelers used while going 7-2 over the second half of last season, a run that included a 16-13 victory at Baltimore in which they rolled up 198 yards on the ground.
“I think we all know that we’ve got to get better if we want to be where we want to be at,” Harris said. “We want to be at the mentality we were last year against the Ravens and this is a good time to do it.”
Baltimore already has road victories over Cincinnati and Cleveland. A win over the Steelers this week would give the Ravens a road sweep of the AFC North, something they’ve done only twice since the current alignment of divisions began in 2002. The last time Baltimore pulled that off was in 2019 when the team went 14-2.
Pittsburgh has won five of six over Baltimore since.
“I remember (from) last year, you’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers,” said Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith, who was acquired in a trade in the middle of last season. “I carry that over into this year, as well. I feel like this season is a totally new season, so I’m not a Raven this season until I beat the Steelers. That’s my mindset.”
Steelers second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett spent the week practice wearing a large brace to protect the bone bruise in his left knee he suffered while getting sacked in the second half against Houston. He expects to be ready on Sunday, though he’s well aware it’s time – maybe past time – for the offense to get it together.
“Obviously you’re frustrated, it hasn’t been good, we know it’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but it can’t be a pain,” Pickett said. “Guys have to continue to showing up, putting the work in, and going out there and playing hard on Sundays.”
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Baltimore contributed to this report.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl