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BALTIMORE (AP) — Things were going so well for the Carolina Panthers before Pittsburgh came to town.
Carolina was 2-0, alone atop the NFC South and eager to impress the nation on Sunday Night Football.
Unimpressed, the Steelers amassed 264 yards rushing and cruised to a 37-13 victory.
The events of last weekend do not bode well for the Panthers, who face another AFC North opponent with a solid running attack on Sunday: the Baltimore Ravens.
Not only did the Ravens (2-1) manhandle the Steelers 26-6 on Sept. 11, but they're coming off a 160-yard rushing performance in a 23-21 win at Cleveland.
For Carolina, playing against AFC North competition means fortifying their shoulder pads and making sure all helmets are fully secured.
"I think, really, it's just their physical nature — the way they play," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the division, which also includes Cincinnati and Cleveland.
It's only the fourth week of the season, but the Ravens have thus far been forced to delve deep into the depth chart to keep first-year offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's scheme afloat.
A three-tiered running back system (Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro) has been employed in the wake of the release of the suspended Ray Rice; rookie James Hurst will be making his first NFL start in place of injured left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee); and tight end Owen Daniels is expected to become more of a target after Dennis Pitta was lost for the season with a dislocated his right hip.
"Good offenses aren't made up of one guy here and one guy there. They are made up of a collection of guys that play physical, play fast and can do a lot of things," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "And I think we have that."
Former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is one of the fast, physical guys. Following a 13-year run in Carolina, Smith plans to make life miserable for his former teammates as a member of the Ravens.
"When I'm on your team, you love me," Smith said. "When I'm not on your team, you despise me."
Here are some things to know about the Panthers-Ravens matchup:
SOMETHING TO PROVE: The Panthers allowed a whopping 7.8 yards per carry against the Steelers, in part because Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount found big holes after patiently waiting for blocks to develop.
"A couple of times we got knocked out of our creases and allowed the double teams to work," Rivera said. "When that happens, you've got to do one of two things: hold your point a little bit better, or stay in your crease as a D-lineman. We just didn't do that very well."
INTRODUCTIONS REQUIRED: This is only the fifth time the Panthers and Ravens have faced each other.
Flacco has been in NFL since 2008 and faced Carolina only once, never before at home.
The previous time these teams met, Brian St. Pierre threw two interceptions for the horrid Panthers, who fell to 1-9 after losing at home 37-13 in 2010.
Oh, by the way, current Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was at Auburn in 2010. He's never played against Baltimore.
SLIM PICKINGS: The Panthers are averaging just 72.3 yards per game on the ground and it may be a while before things get much better. Newton is still recovering from rib and ankle injuries and isn't much of a factor to run the ball. He carried just twice for 7 yards against the Steelers. Rivera expects to get DeAngelo Williams back Sunday, but fullback Mike Tolbert is out for eight weeks and Jonathan Stewart is battling a severely sprained knee and may not play, leaving the Panthers quite thin in the backfield.
THREE-PRONGED ATTACK: Each of the Ravens' three running backs provides a varied challenge to the Panthers.
Pierce is a straight-ahead pounder; Forsett has slipped his way to 6.3 yards per carry; and Taliaferro, a rookie, mixed power and finesse in running for 91 yards in his NFL debut last week.
"All three backs are similar, but they have their own different characteristic style of the way they run," Rivera said. "We have to make sure we understand who the back is and then play from there."
CAM'S DOUBLE: Carolina's 6-foot-5, 245-pound wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is off to a great start, leading all rookies with 253 yards receiving to go along with 16 receptions and two TDs.
Smith called his replacement "a 6-foot-5 Cam Newton with dreads."
Said Smith: "They look very similar but he's very athletic and catches the ball well. I think it doesn't surprise me what he's done thus far in his ability to catch the ball because he did that in college (at Florida State)."
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in North Carolina contributed to this report.
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