A reporter earlier this week was teaching Maurkice Pouncey about Willis Reed, the New York Knicks center who famously walked onto the court at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 1970 with a torn thigh muscle and sparked the Knicks to a win.
“Could Ben Roethlisberger be your Willis Reed this week?” the reporter asked.
Pouncey rolled the information around in his head and replied, “Why can’t Charlie be our Willis Reed?”
That’s the way the Steelers view this game. Even though Charlie Batch isn’t Roethlisberger, and this afternoon’s game in Baltimore against the 9-2 Ravens isn’t for the world championship, the Steelers are taking it as life or death.
But the 6-5 Steelers realistically don’t even need to win this game as much as they’ll need to win later games against the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals. Those are the Steelers’ primary contenders for second AFC wild-card spot, of which the Steelers are currently in charge.
So the Steelers are playing the Ravens today without Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, either of their first two right tackles, and possibly their left guard, and they’re playing for the first time in weeks with Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown, neither of whom is back to form yet.
It all adds up to a game the team can lose to the Ravens.
But that’s not how these Steelers are wired.
“You don’t want to back in,” said free safety Ryan Clark. “You don’t want to have a three-game losing streak, a four-game losing streak to the Ravens. That doesn’t invoke much positive for the weeks we have to play. I don’t know if we lose this game if we play our way out of it to get the wildcard. So I think this game’s important.”
Does the rest of the team feel this way?
“Losing is never cool, especially coming off losing to the Browns, turning the ball over eight times, really being physically whipped on the field. We need to win,” Clark said. “We need to come back and do something positive.”
“Everybody should be pissed off,” said linebacker Larry Foote, who doesn’t want to hear about getting healthy and nailing down the wildcard spot with a four-win finish.
“We’ve all seen that the AFC’s not as dominant as it used to be. We see we’re in the last slot,” he said. “It’s our goal to get in that dance, but we’ve just got to take care of our business now. If we do that we’ll be all right at the end of the season.”
To take care of their business today, the Steelers must stop a team that’s won 15 consecutive home games and averages an NFL-best 36.8 points at home this season. And the Steelers will have to it with their backup quarterback.
Last week, Batch completed 20 of 34 passes for 199 yards, but was intercepted three times in a loss to the Cleveland Browns.
“I have to make better decisions,” said Batch, who’ll turn 38 on Wednesday. “The three turnovers just can’t happen, especially when you’re moving the football.”
In the five halves the Steelers have played since Roethlisberger’s injury, they’ve scored 30 points, and 10 of those are directly attributable to the defense.
Can the Steelers pull it together offensively against the Ravens?
“We’re going to have to,” Batch said.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is optimistic.
“Any time you’re talking about a quarterback that hasn’t played a whole bunch in an extended period of time, getting an opportunity and then getting a second opportunity, he gets a second full week of practice. I would expect him to be better,” Haley said.
The stats bear this out. Batch has seen extensive action in back-to-back games twice since joining the Steelers, and both times he played better in the second game.
Batch will be aided today by the return of Brown and presumably a running game that’s coming off its worst performance of the season.
But the offensive line has once again been shaken up. Rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum will start at right tackle opposite Ravens sacks leader Paul Kruger, and the interior could see center Maurkice Pouncey moving to left guard if Willie Colon can’t play with his injured knee.
Defensively, the Steelers will be without Woodley, but will have Polamalu back, at least as a rotational strong safety with Will Allen.
“It allows me to play more the quarterback and try to get into more pass routes, where I was up to the line a little bit more,” Clark said of the return of Polamalu after seven games. “Now we’ll let Troy wreak havoc and go back to what we’ve been doing the last seven years. It’s been working well for us. Hopefully we’ll just give our offense the ball in good position.”
If not, and the Steelers don’t pull off the upset today, no one – not even the Ravens – will believe that a four-game win streak will turn the tide of a rivalry that has the Steelers at 3-0 in playoff meetings.
“They are winners. They win Super Bowls,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice. “They have quite a few. We have one. I don’t think the tide will change until we win our Super Bowls. That’s just how I feel about it. They find ways to win championships and get into the playoffs.
“Everybody counts the Steelers out. We never count them out. Their record never really matters because that team always finds a way to creep back into the hunt.”