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OWINGS MILLS — The brutal treatment and relentless assault of the defending Super Bowl champions never stopped, especially how the Baltimore Ravens dealt with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Of the nine times he was sacked in a 27-0 loss Nov. 26 in Baltimore, none was more jarring than how linebacker Bart Scott accelerated untouched into the unsuspecting and unprotected passer. His devastating hit launched Roethlisberger into the air, and the back of his helmet collided awkwardly with the ground.
Roethlisberger called it the hardest hit heâ€™s ever endured. Once he returned after regaining his faculties, he was visibly shaken and hesitant.
One month later, the AFC North champion and third-seeded Ravens (11-3) are looking to duplicate their intimidation tactics against Pittsburgh (7-7) today at Heinz Field to stake their claim for a first-round bye as they chase the San Diego Chargers (12-2) and Indianapolis Colts (11-3).
â€œIf I were Ben, I would think about it,â€ Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said regarding the last game.
During that rout, the Steelers were embarrassed as Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker was stuffed for 22 yards, a Roethlisberger fumble was returned 57 yards by linebacker Adalius Thomas for a touchdown and Baltimore rushed for 94 yards in the first half alone.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher, whose unresolved future and expiring contract could make today his final game coaching against Baltimore in Pittsburgh, called it a pitiful performance.
When asked whether the Ravens could bottle up what led to the lopsided display, coach Brian Billick replied: â€œI wish I could. If I knew specifically, I’d be sleeping a lot easier right now. We just took on a mentality that day, not that we didn’t have it before.
"They are a very physical team and sound in what they do, and we matched that soundness in our execution. That sounds overly simplistic. But we executed in a very direct, basic, efficient way."
Since throwing two interceptions and being treated like a human piÃ±ata by the Ravensâ€™ top-ranked defense, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have changed their approach markedly and won their past three games.
Pittsburgh (7-7) has the slimmest of hopes of still achieving a wild-card berth and has won five of its past six games as Roethlisberger has been more selective with his throws with four touchdowns and one interception in the past three weeks.
â€œTheyâ€™ve really gotten back to Steeler football, and thatâ€™s just running the football,â€ Lewis said. â€œBenâ€™s really getting rid of the ball very quickly, so I donâ€™t think theyâ€™re going to sit back there and hold the ball long.â€
After competing for years with Roethlisberger, who became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl last season at age 24 and survived a life-threatening motorcycle accident and appendicitis this summer, the Ravens donâ€™t expect him to show any fear.
Not even against a pass rush that has set the franchise record for sacks with 52 and could become the first team in NFL history to have four players with 10 sacks or more with defensive end Trevor Pryce leading the way with 12 followed by Thomas’ 10, Scott’s 9 1/2 and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ eight.
â€œOne thing about the NFL is that weâ€™re all competitive,â€ said Suggs, who sacked Roethlisberger twice in the first meeting. â€œWe all like to be challenged. I donâ€™t think heâ€™s going to be gun-shy. I think heâ€™s actually going to be looking forward to it and bringing it.â€
The revenge factor has been cited often by the Steelers this week as they have vowed it will be an altogether different story in the second meeting. Baltimore hasnâ€™t won in Pittsburgh since 2001, but has improved dramatically on the road this year with a 5-2 record.
â€œItâ€™s definitely going to be a different game,â€ Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote predicted to Pittsburgh reporters. â€œWe got them in our own backyard this time. It definitely wonâ€™t be like what happened down there. I can promise you that.â€
Added Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel: â€œThey did take a big bite out of us down there, and we still have a bad taste in our mouths from that game.â€
Since that loss, the Steelers have emphasized the run more as Parker has been a major contributor with 223 yards against the Cleveland Browns and 132 yards against the Carolina Panthers. He has rushed for 1,330 yards with 11 touchdown runs. However, Parker has only averaged 48 yards in his three previous games against Baltimore.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has surrendered just 13 points in the past three games and will get safety Troy Polomalu back from a knee injury suffered against Baltimore.
The Ravens are hoping that quarterback Steve McNairâ€™s throwing hand will be all right after it was punctured by Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Andra Davisâ€™ cleats last week. McNair said he can throw the ball effectively, but taking snaps from under center is an issue.
McNairâ€™s task will likely increase in difficulty with All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden out with a hyperextended toe and second-year blocker Adam Terry getting the start.
The three-time Pro Bowl passer does have a significant history of playing hurt. Plus, he has 78.3 percent accuracy, 12 touchdowns and a 122.6 quarterback rating in seven games at Pittsburgh.
â€œItâ€™s just a mental effect as far as going out there and playing with injuries,â€ McNair said. â€œIâ€™ve been doing it my whole career, and itâ€™s just something I can adapt to. When you are injured, youâ€™re more focused on the little things and you can go out there and play well.â€
Even with the one-sided nature of the last game along with the Ravens winning the past two times against Pittsburgh and three of the past five games, the Steelers are favored by three points.
â€œThey are going to make the odds, and we go out to defy them,â€ cornerback Chris McAlister said.
The Ravens have rich aspirations, but have never been seeded higher than fourth in their previous trips to the playoffs. They need San Diego and Indianapolis to lose and must win their final two games to have a shot at the top seed, which carries home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
â€œWeâ€™re still in the battle to get home-field advantage and let the playoffs go through Baltimore,â€ Scott said. â€œHopefully, we can keep chugging along because we know itâ€™s a huge advantage and something weâ€™re fighting for. By no means, do we shut it down here.â€
With a strong finish, the Ravens could enter the postseason on a four-game winning streak if they can beat the Steelers and the Buffalo Bills next weekend at M&T Bank Stadium in their regular-season finale.
â€œThese two weeks are going to be the most important two weeks of the season, quite honestly,â€ Pryce said. â€œYou want to go into the playoffs feeling confident and on a high note. We still have something to play for.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland