Four days after opening the season by losing to a division foe at home, the Baltimore Ravens face their most-hated rival in a pivotal game Thursday night.
The matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't come soon enough for the Ravens, who finally get to play a football game in the wake of the media firestorm involving Ray Rice.
Following Sunday's 23-16 defeat against Cincinnati, Baltimore had not yet launched its short work-week when a video surfaced showing Rice hitting his then-fiancee in an elevator last February. The incident previously led the NFL to suspend the running back for two games, but the graphic video prompted the Ravens to release Rice and the NFL to suspend him indefinitely.
From that point, coach John Harbaugh and his players were bombarded with more questions about Rice than the importance of avoiding an 0-2 start with two home losses against AFC North opponents.
"It's been a trying time," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "You have to compartmentalize to some part, because if you don't, this is a game that is physical and you can get hurt if your mind is not clear and focused on what you have to do."
Under different circumstances, the Ravens (0-1) and Steelers (1-0) would be asked about the intensity of a rivalry in which 10 of the last 12 games have been decided by three points or fewer. Maybe everyone would be talking about Pittsburgh's second-half collapse against Cleveland last week.
Instead, the topic of conversation was a running back who wasn't supposed to play in this game anyway.
The first question posed to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a conference call involved his thoughts on Ray Rice. He dutifully answered before quickly shifting gears.
"We pray for him and his family," Roethlisberger told the Baltimore media. "The biggest focus is the game on Thursday. ... That is what we can control."
Here are some things to know about the Ravens-Steelers game:
TOMLIN SIDESTEP: When these teams last met in November, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was looking at the scoreboard when he strayed onto the field while Baltimore's Jacoby Jones was returning a kick.
Jones altered his path and was tackled before reaching the end zone.
Tomlin, who was subsequently fined $100,000 by the NFL, said this week: "Tell Jacoby he's safe."
Said Jones: "I'm actually going up to holler at him right before the game and go, 'Hey, what you got for me this time?''"
NEXT MEN UP: With Rice gone, the Ravens' running backs are Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Pierce has two career starts, Forsett hasn't started a game since 2010, and Taliaferro has never run the ball in the NFL.
"If you saw our run defense last week, you know that we would have respect for anybody's ability to run the football," Tomlin said.
Cleveland rushed for 183 yards, including 100 by Terrance West in his first NFL game.
THE BELL TOILS: Steelers second-year running back Le'Veon Bell doesn't remember much from his trip to Baltimore. He left with a concussion following a helmet-to-helmet hit at the goal line
"It's football," Bell said. "I still go all out, and probably in the same situation I probably would do the same thing. I would go right in there and try to get into the end zone for my team."
The Steelers had no problem with the way Bell played in the opener. He piled up 197 total yards, including a 38-yard touchdown sprint.
NO HUDDLE, MO' PROBLEMS: As remarkably easy as Pittsburgh's first half against the Browns looked, the second half was just as troubling. The Steelers let a 24-point lead disappear in just over a quarter as their defense struggled to keep up once Cleveland started pushing the pace. The Browns amassed 288 yards in the second half.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau expects the Ravens — and everyone else on Pittsburgh's schedule — to do the same until his unit can stay focused once the tempo kicks up a notch.
"The problems defending no-huddle, they're certainly not unsolvable," LeBeau said. "We have to do a better job of keeping our poise more than anything, and that's what we're working on. We'll definitely be better on that."
WELCOME TO THE RIVALRY: Smith played with Carolina for 13 seasons before coming to Baltimore this season, so this will be his first taste of Ravens-Steelers.
"That was one of the big things that were explained to me," Smith said. "Every team has its rival; every team has a team that makes things very interesting, a little chippy.
"It's a big game Thursday. All that stuff going on throughout the city and just here, I'm looking forward to it."
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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