Terrell Suggs may be one of the NFL’s best hype men.
Still, even the ever-chatty Baltimore Ravens linebacker sounded like he was trying to convince himself that his team’s rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers remains as contentious as ever.
“I have a feeling the whole NFL, if they’re not playing, even if they are playing in the Sunday night game, they will catch a glimpse of this game,” Suggs said.
Maybe, but if they do, they’ll be more likely to see a watered-down version of a once white-hot rift that has cooled considerably.
Pittsburgh’s tumble from the league’s elite combined with Baltimore’s Super Bowl title and the abrupt departure of franchise fixtures Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have left both teams still searching for an identity.
That search has overshadowed what once was a twice-annual battle for AFC North supremacy. Now the Ravens (3-3) and Steelers (1-4) find themselves looking up at frontrunning Cincinnati (4-2) as Halloween approaches.
Pittsburgh ended its worst start in 45 years with a victory over the Jets last week. Any momentum can quickly be erased if the Steelers can’t back it up. In a way, the opponent is nearly beside the point.
“Now that it’s Baltimore and it’s the AFC North, it means a little bit more,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “But we’re still in a pretty big hole.”
Five things to look for as two teams try not to become even more distant specks in Cincinnati’s rearview mirror:
RUNNING ON EMPTY? Baltimore’s Ray Rice has been one of the league’s most productive and successful backs since he came into the NFL in 2008. Suddenly, it’s all gone. Rice is averaging 39.2 yards rushing per game and an abysmal 2.8 yards per carry, and is splitting time with Bernard Pierce.
It’s gotten so bad coach John Harbaugh joked his team’s struggles running the ball are dragging down the league average. He’s not far off. The Ravens are 27th in the league in rushing.
Then again, the Steelers are even worse. Pittsburgh is 31st, though there have been signs of life since rookie Le’Veon Bell returned from a sprained foot last month.
HOT AT HEINZ: The Steelers have the NFL’s fourth-best home record since Heinz Field opened in 2001. It hardly matters when the Ravens are in town.
Baltimore has won the last three regular-season meetings in Pittsburgh, including a 13-10 victory last November that kickstarted a 2-5 finish by the Steelers and propelled the Ravens to a division title and eventually a world championship.
Suggs doesn’t think his team has any kind of magic formula. The road team is 5-1 in the last six regular-season meetings.
“I don’t know, luck I guess,” he said. “They’ve also had some success on our home field as well. It’ll just be one of those games. It can go either way.”
PROTECTING BEN: Suggs has sacked Roethlisberger 15 1-2 times in his career, by far the most by a Pittsburgh opponent. The frequent meetings in the backfield have built up a mutual respect between one of the NFL’s fiercest pass rushers and one of the league’s toughest QBs to tackle quarterbacks.
They figure to see plenty of each other Sunday. The Steelers are allowing nearly four sacks a game, though coach Mike Tomlin stresses he’s not overly concerned about the pounding Roethlisberger is receiving.
“Quarterbacks get hit,” Tomlin said. “That’s that nature of the game. That’s why people rush people. That’s why they employ people like Suggs and (Elvis) Dumervil. It’s our job to minimize that.”
STREAKING BROWN: Since having an onfield discussion with offensive coordinator Todd Haley about his role during a loss to Cincinnati in Week 2, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has put together the most productive streak in team history.
Brown has 30 receptions over the last three games and even completed a pass last week against the Jets. He is quickly becoming the No. 1 receiver the Steelers envisioned when they let speedy Mike Wallace walk in free agency last spring.
“I did all right (last week), but I think I left a couple plays out there and could have been a little better on a couple more routes,” Brown said. “I just have to continue to find ways to get better.”
CONFOUNDING INCONSISTENCY: The Ravens insist they’re not in the midst of a Super Bowl hangover, though at times it certainly looks like one. Their first six weeks include a 21-point romp over Houston and a three-point loss to Buffalo.
“Sometimes it just seems like we’re missing pieces here and there,” Suggs said. “There are other times it seems like we can be one of the best teams in the NFL.”