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Steelers clinch AFC North with tight win over Ravens

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USA Today Sports

Steelers clinch AFC North with tight win over Ravens

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier was everywhere. His helmet rested on the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench. His jersey too. His face and #Shalieve stitched on specially-designed cleats. His familiar No. 50 printed in white in the middle of a gold circle on T-shirts worn by teammates searching for a way to let Shazier know he is never far from their mind as he recovers from a spinal injury that put the linebacker's blossoming career in jeopardy.

Shazier may never play football again. That doesn't make him any less of a Steeler. And the men who have taken so much from him over the last three-plus years decided it was time they gave him something back in return: the AFC North title he ordered them to lock down without him.

Chris Boswell made a 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left and Pittsburgh's defense overcame a shaky night without their most dynamic player to shut down Baltimore's last-gasp drive and hold on for a 39-38 victory on Sunday night to capture their third division title in the last four years.

"We are riding with that guy," head coach Mike Tomlin said of Shazier. "He is strong. He is strengthening us."

Looked like it.

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The Steelers (11-2) trailed by 11 points going into the fourth quarter but capped an emotionally draining week to rally for their eighth straight victory, one they couldn't wait to share with Shazier, who joined the giddy postgame celebration via Facetime.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to top 500 yards passing three times. Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, including two long gains in the fourth quarter that allowed the Steelers to recover after blowing an early 14-point lead. Le'Veon Bell had 125 yards of total offense and scored three touchdowns .

"We can win a shootout against anybody," Bell said. "I feel like we can score points whenever we need to."

Good thing, because Pittsburgh might have to. The Ravens (7-6) rolled up 414 yards against the NFL's fourth-ranked defense and recovered from a slow start to score on five consecutive drives and six out of seven to take a 38-29 lead on Javorius Allen's second touchdown with 6:44 left.

Not much time against most teams. Far too much against the Steelers.

Roethlisberger and Brown, who is mounting a legitimate MVP candidacy, hooked up on a 57-yard connection set up an 11-yard sprint by Bell with 3:29 to go. The Steelers forced the Ravens into a three-and-out and Roethlisberger calmly led Pittsburgh within field goal range, including a 34-yard lob down the sideline to Brown that set up Boswell's winner.

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Baltimore's Joe Flacco threw for 269 yards passing with two touchdowns and one interception but was strip-sacked by rookie linebacker T.J. Watt on the Ravens' final snap.

"This one hurts," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We lose to them the same way we did last year. This one sucks, but we've got to get over it. Yeah, this one's going to hurt but it's best for us to have a short memory on this one because if we win out there's a good chance we'll be in (the playoffs)."

Shazier, who's been in the hospital since injuring his spine in the first quarter of last week's victory over Cincinnati, told his teammates to finish the work he helped start. Even as they celebrated an important step in a journey they hope will carry them deep into the postseason, they were making plans to keep Shazier involved, starting with a late-night trip to the hospital to deliver him his AFC North champions' swag.

"We are going to give him the hat and T-shirt tonight," good friend and fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams said.

When someone mentioned visitor's hours were probably over, Williams repeated "tonight." Then, it was home to rest before preparing for a showdown with New England next Sunday.

"That's the crazy part about the NFL, things constantly change and you've got to keep rolling," Williams said. "So you've got to find a way to roll with the punches even though it may be a haymaker, got to find a way to recover."

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Baltimore Ravens 2018 Training Camp preview

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Baltimore Ravens 2018 Training Camp preview

The Ravens’ 2018 season is one of the most anticipated seasons in the last decade. 

From the coaching staff to the quarterback, the future of the franchise will be determined over 16 weeks. The work, however, beings now. 

The Ravens’ first training camp practice kicks off Thursday and there is a lot to keep a close eye on. Let's take a look at the many talking points of the 2018 preseason.

The Great Quarterback Debate:

Unless you’ve been in hiding since the NFL Draft, you know what all the hoopla is about. Joe Flacco remains the Ravens’ starter, but the competition at QB1 just got a little more interesting. The addition of Lamar Jackson has hopefully ignited a fire under Flacco and Jackson will get a year to learn under the 11-year veteran. If the season starts to go south early on, Jackson could come in as their starter and begin his role as the team’s next franchise quarterback. 

A lot could happen at the quarterback position over the next year, but one thing that is certain is all eyes will be on Lamar Jackson when he hits the field at training camp. You can't deny your intrigue. The Heisman winner had success both in the air and on the ground over his three years at Louisville, racking up record-breaking numbers. How the Ravens utilize Jackson will be interesting. Coach Harbaugh has already stated he will be active on game days and that they're experimenting with having Jackson and Flacco on the field at the same time. 

Oh, and then there's Robert Griffin III. We think you might know who he is.

The Ravens signed him to a one-year deal back at the beginning of April, but now with the addition of Lamar Jackson, another big training camp question arises. Do the Ravens keep a third QB on their active roster or do they send him on his way? RGIII has mentioned he's looking forward to mentoring the fellow Heisman Trophy winner in his first year in the league, but how much of that he'll get to do remains unseen.

A New Core Of Offensive Weapons: 

Flacco's declining numbers cannot be placed entirely on his shoulders. His options at wide receiver and tight end have been limited, but Ozzie Newsome – in his last year as general manager – made sure that would no longer be an issue.

Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John 'Smokey' Brown became Ravens in free agency and Breshad Perriman will fight for his final chance with the team after they declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. There is also 2018 draft picks Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley and undrafted free agents Jaelon Acklin and Andrew Levrone. Veteran Chris Moore and Quincy Adeboyejo will also be competing. Flacco mentioned during OTAs that he would be rounding up his receivers outside of practice to build chemistry. Come Thursday, we will see if the sparks have begun to fly.

The tight end depth chart will be looking very different for the Ravens as well this season. There was, of course, the additions of Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews – a pair of Top 100 picks – in the draft and undrafted free agent Nick Keizer. Veterans Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are returning, but who will be their starter Week 1 will be interesting to watch. Boyle was on the field for 66 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps in 2017, but injuries have hindered both Boyle and Williams. Williams missed 12 games in 2016 with a knee tear and five games in 2017 with an ankle sprain. Where he sits on the depth chart will rely heavily on how healthy he remains during an extended training camp. 

Critical Year for the Coaching Staff:

The 2018 season is the most critical one of John Harbaugh's 10-year tenure. As you've read many times this offseason, the Ravens haven't seen the postseason since 2015. And if that trend continues into the 2018 season, big changes to the offensive playcallers should be imminent. 

At his annual State of the Ravens press conference in February, owner Steve Bisciotti was questioned as to why no coaching changes – from head coach to offensive coordinator – were made after the Ravens' offense clearly had trouble getting things going all season long.

"I’m not going to give a ‘playoff or bust’ edict to you all, or to my coach," Bisciotti said.

"He’s under as much pressure, probably, than he’s ever been in his life, and I expect him to keep his chin up and take his positivity and his talents and make the most of this season. I may as well replace him now if I’m going to tell him, ‘Make the playoffs or you’re out of town next year.’ That’s just not the way to run a business.”

That mindset is understandable. Bisciotti noted Flacco has been through four offensive coordinators in five years and was comfortable with OC Marty Mornhinweg. Harbaugh's contract was extended through 2019, but if the season doesn't pan out as expected, the offensive could have a very different look in 2019. 

A Fast and Furious Defense:

Linebackers coach, Don 'Wink' Martindale was promoted to defensive coordinator after Dean Pees' departure. Harbaugh hired within the organization to keep the defensive vision cohesive, but Martindale is bringing something different to the table. 

"He's just putting his personal fix on our defense and expanding it, giving the guys confidence to play fast," safety Eric Weddle said in a recent interview. "The idea is to do what's best for the defense, not what's best the individual."

It appears this year's defense will rely heavily on the instincts of its star players like Pro Bowlers Weddle, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. The defense has never had an issue being dominate, but you may be seeing a more creative defense come game days with players given the freedom to make decisions in real time. How well it works will be exciting to see. 

Other Notes: 

The Ravens placed six players, G Marshal Yanda, TE Vince Mayle, DE Brent Urban, CB Jaylen Hill, LB Bam Bradley and WR Quincy Adeboyejo on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to begin training camp. Yanda missed 14 games last season after suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Placing him on the PUP list to begin training camp is most likely out of precaution. He did not participate in any offseason workouts. 

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Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

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USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

Football is back in session for the Ravens.

Their rookies are set to report to the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md Wednesday. Veterans report next Wednesday, the 18th.

The team is reporting to training camp a bit earlier than most NFL teams. Due to Ray Lewis being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Aug. 4 in Canton, Oh, the Ravens will face the Chicago Bears in the annual Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 2. Teams participating are eligible to begin training camp earlier.

This rookie class is already generating national attention. While the Ravens stand by Joe Flacco as their QB1, first-round pick Lamar Jackson could cause a shakeup at some point during the season. And when it comes to much-needed offensive help, tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews could begin to provide relief. 

Third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. begins his journey with the Ravens in a more sentimental fashion. His father, Orlando "Zeus" Brown, also played tackle for the Ravens from 1996-98 and then again from 2003-05. Brown passed away in 2011. 

Stay with NBC Sports Washington throughout the next several weeks as we keep a close eye on the Ravens' preseason. 

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