By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin described the rivalry between his club and the Baltimore Ravens as the best in the National Football League, and it will be on display Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
The two teams played for the AFC Championship two years ago, and they continually battle for the AFC North Division title as well. Tomlin already has been part of several amazing games in that rivalry.
“I’ve witnessed the last seven or eight of those meetings, (and) it’s always fireworks. It’s always significant. It just is. It’s football the way it’s supposed to be played. Those guys put a lot into it on both sides. Both teams are spent when it’s over, and I would think mutual respect is a big part of it.”
Another reason could be that both teams play stifling defense, and the Ravens happen to lead the league through three games.
“(Ray Lewis) has got his usual cohorts wreaking havoc on opponents,” Tomlin said. “(Haloti) Ngata, (Terrell) Suggs, (Jarret) Johnson, (Jameel) McClain, the list goes on and on. On the back end, (Dawan) Landry, (Tom) Zbikowski, (Fabian) Washington. (Chris) Carr has fit in nicely.
“They brought him in maybe as a return man. Now this guy’s playing the corner and is doing some nice things in their sub-packages. They’ve given up the fewest first downs by far in the NFL. I think they’re second in the league in red-zone defense. So they play ball the way we desire to play ball.
“I think that’s what makes this matchup special,” Tomlin added. “We’ve got a great deal of respect for this outfit. They bring the best out in us. We love playing against them. Regardless of what happens in the stadium, you’re going to know a little bit about yourself after having played the Baltimore Ravens.”
Veteran quarterback Charlie Batch again will lead the Steelers into action this week, and Tomlin noted that his strong play was a difference in the last game.
“He’s doing a nice job,” Tomlin said. “Guys got a great deal of confidence in him. He’s simply a man that’s taken advantage of an opportunity. You’ve got to be happy for him. It’s an awesome lesson learned for our young players.
“(It’s one) that I hope they take heed to. It’s about perseverance. This profession’s about perseverance. It’s about taking advantage of opportunities when they’re given and he’s given them a shiny, clear-cut example of that.”
Byron Leftwich again will be Batch’s backup, although he did not get any playing time last week even though the Steelers had a big lead. Tomlin said he was well enough to play, but “we were comfortable with what we were doing and how we were going about our approach to the game.”
Dennis Dixon had knee surgery last week, and Tomlin said he’s hopeful that he will return to the team sooner than expected. The prognosis, however, is 4-6 weeks for his recovery. However, it has not yet been determined if he should be placed on injured reserve, although that could be an option next week.
The only notable injuries are nose tackle Chris Hoke (sprained knee) from last week, and offensive guard Trai Essex (foot) from the week before. Hoke is questionable at this point, while Essex “is going to have to prove his health to us” in order to play against the Ravens. Even if Essex is healthier, backup Doug Legursky played well in his absence and could be tough to unseat.
“I thought he represented himself very well,” Tomlin said. “(And) I think that’s one of the reasons Trai’s feeling better.”
Notes: Tomlin said that rookie wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have both been making steady progress, but Brown “has the helmet (will dress)” for the Ravens primarily due to special teams work. However, he “did play more offense in Tampa than he did in Tennessee.”
Ben Roethlisberger is eligible to practice with the team after the Ravens game ends, but Tomlin has not yet determined the Steelers’ bye-week schedule.