By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger has been experiencing severe pain in his right foot and knee since he injured them in Buffalo last Sunday, but the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback still expected to play this week.
The team practiced outside for the second straight day, braving the cold temperature, occasional high winds and intermittent snow flurries to get ready to face the Ravens.
Roethlisberger had a pronounced limp but he didn’t wear a protective boot at lunch and in the locker room before and after practice.
“I would guess that the pain’s at least a nine….
on a scale of one to 10,” Roethlisberger said Thursday before practice. Afterward, Roethlisberger said he was able to do pretty much the same things he did Wednesday, no more or no less, and he’s been able to manage the pain so far.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark wasn’t too thrilled to hit the hard, grass fields for the second straight afternoon.
“Practices are tough in the cold, not just being out there, but with all the standing around,” Clark said. “Games are much more intense, and you have a chance to warm up on the sideline with a heater and jacket. That’s not the same as practice. We have an indoor facility, so I think we should use that.”
Coach Mike Tomlin decided to ratchet the intensity up a notch this week, as the Steelers (8-3) face the Baltimore Ravens (8-3) with the AFC North Division championship up for grabs Sunday at 8:20 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md. The Ravens won the first meeting this season, 17-14 Oct. 3 at Heinz Field, so they certainly would have a huge edge in the title race.
If the Steelers are able to pull off a win, they likely have the inside track to win the AFC North, a first-round bye into the playoffs — along with the AFC East winner — and possible trip to the Super Bowl with a better division record. The wild-card teams must travel for their playoff games and certainly will have a tougher road.
The Steelers have three straight home games after the Ravens — the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers — and end the regular season Jan. 2 at Cleveland. The Jets are tied with the New England Patriots at 9-2, and either could win the AFC East.
The other three remaining teams on the schedule have just seven wins combined. So, the Steelers certainly would have an inside track to the title, but will need strong play in the trenches to earn that distinction. The offensive line should remain intact for consecutive weeks for the first time this season, but the defensive line should change again with end Brett Keisel returning.
“It’s a big game for us, a must win, so we’re ready for this big game against the Ravens,” Steelers wideout Mike Wallace said. “It’s just another step for us to win the championship.”
Roethlisberger is 7-2 all-time against the Ravens, with both losses occurring in 2006, so he is undefeated since then. Charlie Batch was the Steelers quarterback during that early season loss while Roethlisberger completed his four-game, NFL-mandated suspension.
“He’s a playmaker,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s one of the premier quarterbacks in the league. He has a very unique style, and I think they do a great job of building their offense around that style. His players understand him very well, and they know how to make plays around him.”
Roethlisberger wasn’t the only Steelers player to be limited in practice this week, as cornerback Bryant McFadden has handled his right hamstring injury with care both Wednesday and Thursday.
“I’m feeling OK,” McFadden said. “It’s an injury that you have to be careful with. I did everything yesterday and today, but not at full speed. So, they told me to take it easy and work through it, and we’ll see where I am by the end of the week. But it’s probably going to be a game-time decision for me to play.
“I want to play, but at the same time I don’t want to end up like Keisel and miss a bunch of games. The most dreadful part is that it’s not 60-70 degrees out there, and your body isn’t warm already. So, even if I feel good, I still have to be cautious right now. So, I have to be smart about it. I’m getting practice time in, but I’m not going to lay it on the line like I would on Sunday.”
McFadden’s hamstring injury was pretty high in the back of his leg, and he just strained it. So, he said it could be worse, but he felt enough of a problem to know that something wasn’t right there. And he came out of the game. Brett Keisel missed five of the past six games and played sparingly in the other due to a nagging hamstring (thigh) injury. He practiced full speed and was expected to play, but thought he was ready for the Cincinnati game and had to come out immediately. Keisel laid low this week, quickly ducking into the trainer’s room after practice and not coming into the locker room until after the media left.
If Keisel is ready, he’ll likely start ahead of banged-up backup Nick Eason, who suffers from knee and ankle injuries exacerbated against the Bills. And if McFadden can’t play, William Gay will step into his starting cornerback spot. Anthony Madison took Gay’s spot in the nickel defense, and Keenan Lewis played when the Steelers went to the dime with six DBs.
“That goes back to training camp, getting yourself ready to play, and that’s the way it is for every player in the NFL,” Gay said. “You have to be ready at all times, and I was ready to step up. That doesn’t mean I’ll do it easily, but I get prepared to play every day in practice before a game. And that’s how it was for the other guys. We all just moved up a spot and played.
“Keenan, in his mind, was ready to play, ready to step in if he got the chance. That’s why we go through training camp, the preseason and each day in practice now. We have to be ready when our name is called, and me, Anthony and Keenan were all ready for the challenge this past week.”
The Steelers’ passing game has been buoyed by improved play from rookie Emmanuel Sanders, who clearly has surpassed Antwaan Randle El in the No. 3 wide receiver spot.
“It’s a big week for us against the Baltimore Ravens, and it’s a chance for us to get on top in the AFC North,” Sanders said. “So, we all have to bring our A games, and I want to be part of that. It’s definitely a blessing to get more reps as the No. 3 receiver, but at the same time I have to continue to make plays, get in my playbook and be mentally sharp at game time.
“(And) when something doesn’t go my way, a drop or something like that, I can’t keep the bad play in my mind. If I do, then it could happen again, and I’ll have a bad day. I don’t want that, and the team doesn’t need that to happen. So, I just keep it fresh in my mind to make up for anything that goes wrong in a game. I’m slowly starting to earn Ben’s trust.
“But I just have to continue to take every single ball that he throws to me and make a play,” Sanders added. “And as long as I do that, things should be all right for me. And if we can get Antonio (Brown) here to come along, too, then we can be even more explosive on offense.”
Brown (knee) hasn’t missed any time this week, and he expected to be ready to play Sunday. It remains to be seen if Tomlin will dress both rookie wideouts.
Safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles, ankle) and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) did not practice yet this week, but Polamalu has followed this route the past two weeks and still played in the games.