OWINGS MILLS – It was a glaring pair of absences, remarkable enough for a couple of double takes around the football field.
It felt strange enough that an installment of the blood rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers would take place without controversial quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while he served a suspension for NFL violating the personal conduct policy.
On top of that, the pure centerfielder regarded as the most instinctive defensive back of the past decade was sidelined for the Ravens’ 17-14 victory last month at Heinz Field following offseason hip surgery.
Now, Ravens free safety Ed Reed’s presence in tonight’s grudge match at M&T Bank Stadium is being characterized as the equalizer to Roethlisberger being on hand for the Steelers.
Both players can’t wait to renew their personal duel of strategy, movement and hair-trigger reactions as the Ravens (8-3) and the Steelers (8-3) square off for supremacy in the AFC North.
“I wasn’t there, Ben wasn’t there,” Reed said Friday. “It makes for a reunion. I love to play a good chess match.”
With Reed having intercepted four passes in five games since being activated from the physically unable to perform list and Roethlisberger on top of his game after serving his NFL punishment, this shapes up as an intriguing game within the game.
“Well, I guess we knew that Ben would be back, too, so maybe it evened out,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s good to have Ed Reed back. Ed Reed, obviously, is a guy who can make interceptions. You talk about all these other premier guys in the league.
“I’m partial to our guys and I’ll take Ed Reed any day of the week. He’s my favorite guy. He’s a great player and he’s a great leader. He’s going to be big for us.”
The six-time Pro Bowl free safety has intercepted 50 career passes, the most in franchise history and the most in the NFL since entering the league eight years ago.
Reed has scored 13 touchdowns and is the lone NFL player to score on interception returns, fumble recoveries, a blocked punt and a punt return.
His rare knack for baiting quarterbacks into critical mistakes has turned into 1,338 yards worth of interception returns and six touchdowns going in the other direction.
Roethlisberger is on guard for Reed and his dynamic range.
“Not almost cover, he can cover the whole field,” said Roethlisberger during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “Maybe one of the best players I’ve ever played against. Instinctually, he’s one of those guys. His instincts are just uncanny. Physically, obviously, what a talent.
“I have nothing but the utmost respect for that guy when he’s on the football field. When he’s out there, it makes a big difference, especially in the passing game. You can’t look him off. You can’t get a ball by him. You can’t fool him. You just have to hope he slips or makes a mistake somehow, and that doesn’t happen very often.”
Reed leads the Ravens with nine pass deflections and has one forced fumble.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he knocked down five passes to establish a new career high.
Reed is the owner of the longest interception return with a 107-yard run-back for a score against the Philadelphia Eagles two years ago.
And Reed’s accomplishments, including his NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004, earns him a lot of respect in NFL circles.
“When I think about Ed Reed and when I see him on film, in my generation, he’s the best ball hawk,” former NFL safety Rodney Harrison said in an NBC conference call. “He’s a guy that for everything that he brings, he really doesn’t get credit for it. The guy’s a really good open-field tackler, a terrific blitzer.
“He’s gotten a little older, but he relies more on his instincts and his film preparation. That’s the thing that a lot of people really don’t give him credit for it. Yes, he gets a lot of interceptions and he knocks a lot of balls down, creates a lot of big plays but just his leadership. He’s playing with a bunch of young corners. He makes such an impact on those guys.”
Reed isn’t operating under any illusions that Roethlisberger won’t play or be at his best despite a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot that limited him in practice this week.
Questionable on the injury report, Roethlisberger has vowed to play.
And Reed believes him.
“He’s a football player, he’s a fighter,” Reed said. “So, you’ve got to expect him to play.”
And probably play well.
Roethlisberger is 7-2 all-time against the Ravens. They haven’t beaten him since four years ago when they swept the annual series.
The Ravens beat the Steelers last time on a last-minute touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Flacco outdueled Charlie Batch that day.
Now, Roethlisberger enters the equation.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t go in our favor,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought it was a heck of a football game.”
Roethlisberger wasn’t in the stadium that day, watching from his home in the suburbs of Pittsburgh while finishing his punishment stemming from a sexual assault accusation this offseason from a Georgia woman that was resolved legally with no charges being filed.
He’s expected to be an important figure in this rematch, though.
So far this season, Roethlisberger has passed for 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
He has completed 62.3 percent of his throws for 1,825 yards and a 99.1 passer rating.
“They’re definitely a better team when he’s under center,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We know he’s going to play because this is championship football.”
No quarterback has been superior to Roethlisberger in the clutch, completing 72.7 percent of his throws in the fourth quarter for 605 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions for a 122.2 passer rating.
Roethlisberger’s scrambling and improvisational skills sets him apart.
“He is the guy that keeps moving when you think plays are going to be dead,” All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “That’s the energy that he brings. Ben is the ultimate competitor. He brings a great confidence o that ballclub that he can keep plays going when they’re not supposed to be going. I just think that they are who they are with Ben Roethlisberger. And when they don’t have him, you’re going to see a lot that they don’t like to do.”
Connecting with speedy deep threat Mike Wallace for four touchdowns over the past four games, Roethlisberger is expected to try to target cornerback Josh Wilson tonight.
Reed could prevent that from happening with his capability of cutting off deep throws.
And his game-breaking presence could change the Steelers’ approach.
Reed is unpredictable and willing to gamble. Sometimes, it leads to big plays for both sides.
“It’s always good to have your All-Pro safety with you, a guy that can cover both sides of the field and he’s making plays even when he’s not supposed to be somewhere,” Suggs said. “When you’ve got a guy like that he’s like American Express. He’s everywhere you want to be. I love having Ed Reed back, and I just can’t wait to see No. 20 out there doing his thing.”
The winner of this game will likely win the division and an automatic playoff berth.
With so much at stake, each team will have two of their best players available.
It’s Reed versus Roethlisberger and Ravens versus Steelers
“Now that everybody has everybody,” Lewis said, “let’s see how it goes down.”