(AP) — A destructive defense and a productive running game have kept the Pittsburgh Steelers rolling right along without Ben Roethlisberger, but the Baltimore Ravens plan on providing a stiffer test to their bitter AFC North rivals.
At Heinz Field, they rarely have.
The Steelers look to continue their home dominance of the Ravens on Sunday as they seek their first 4-0 start in 31 years in their final test before Roethlisberger’s return.
Pittsburgh has done more than most expected without its suspended quarterback, who can rejoin the team Monday as it heads into its bye week.
After surviving on an attacking defense and the legs of running back Rashard Mendenhall for two games, it was veteran Charlie Batch who provided a boost last Sunday at Tampa. Batch, starting for the injured Dennis Dixon, matched a career high with three touchdown passes in a 38-13 win.
“The standard for expectation doesn’t change for us,” said Mendenhall, who ran for 143 yards and a touchdown. “Nobody’s going to care if you lose a game because somebody’s not here or somebody’s hurt. Those kind of things happen.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, for one, hasn’t been surprised at how well the Steelers have performed without Roethlisberger. A win Sunday would give Pittsburgh its first 4-0 start since 1979, when it went on to win its fourth Super Bowl.
“We’re not surprised they’re 3-0, but we don’t care,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to play the game.”
While the Steelers lead the NFL in giving up 11.0 points per game, Baltimore (2-1) boasts the No. 1 total defense with an average of 244.3 yards allowed. The Ravens have held the Steelers under 100 yards on the ground in nine of their last 10 meetings.
Baltimore has shown some rare vulnerability on the ground, though, even in victory. Peyton Hillis ran for 144 yards in Cleveland’s 24-17 loss last Sunday in Baltimore, the most rushing yards the Ravens have allowed since 2005.
Rather than concentrating on how his offense can match the Browns’ production, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expressed concern with Hillis’ big day.
“I’d have felt better if Peyton Hillis had run for 40 as opposed to 140 because I know the type of men that play for that (Baltimore) team,” said Tomlin, who called the Ravens-Steelers rivalry the best in the NFL. “Great defenses like the Baltimore Ravens usually bounce back quickly.”
Mendenhall, who’s averaged 3.2 yards per carry in the series, knows the Ravens’ punishing style all too well. Linebacker Ray Lewis broke Mendenhall’s collar bone and knocked him out for the season when the running back was a rookie in 2008.
The Steelers rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to win that game 23-20 in overtime at Heinz Field, something they’re used to doing versus Baltimore. Pittsburgh is 9-1 in its last 10 home games against the Ravens, including two playoff wins.
None of the four regular-season meetings since 2008 have been decided by more than four points.
“I’d be lying if I told you it was just another game,” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “It’s a little bit more than that. … This is the game on the schedule that we circle and we definitely look forward to.
“Maybe because we don’t like these guys. We respect them, but we don’t like them.”
Part of the Ravens’ recent struggles in Pittsburgh can be traced to Joe Flacco, who’s thrown four interceptions and posted a 59.2 passer rating at Heinz Field.
It looks like Flacco will head into Sunday’s matchup with arguably his best offensive weapon available. Running back Ray Rice, who snapped the Steelers’ 33-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher with 141 yards in a 23-20 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 27, said Thursday that his bruised right knee shouldn’t keep him from playing.
“It’s just getting better each day,” Rice said. “I’m just going out there working because I know it’s just a bruise. I got a second opinion, got everything I needed to do. Once you find out it’s just a bruise, you’ve got new life again.”
Pittsburgh’s defense has forced a league-high 10 turnovers – five interceptions – with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu healthy, but this will be its first taste of a Baltimore offense with Anquan Boldin in the fold. Flacco connected with the Ravens’ prized offseason acquisition for three touchdowns against Cleveland, part of an eight-catch, 142-yard day.
“Anquan showed today why we wanted him to be a Raven,” Harbaugh said. “He’s our kind of guy.”
Pittsburgh’s plus-six turnover margin is tied for the league’s best, while Baltimore’s minus-six is tied for the NFL’s worst.