Ravens much healthier following bye

OWINGS MILLS -- Moments after the reeling Baltimore Ravens emerged from the bye a much healthier football team, Trevor Pryce issued a strong response to a suggestion that the reigning AFC North champions' problems could be chalked up strictly to a multitude of injuries. "No, that's a cop-out," the four-time Pro Bowl defensive end said Monday. "We're in a tussle."

As the Ravens (4-3) returned to work at their training complex after a week off to begin preparations for a pivotal Monday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) at Heinz Field, they took confidence from several key starters' progress, including: quarterback Steve McNair (back, groin), Pryce (broken wrist), offensive tackles Jonathan Ogden (turf toe) and Adam Terry (sprained ankle) and center Mike Flynn (knee).

Meanwhile, tight end Todd Heap (hamstring) and cornerback Chris McAlister (knee) didn't practice and are regarded as the two biggest question marks for the Pittsburgh game.

Despite the improved medical situation, the Ravens are aware that they have a lot of work to do. They face an arduous schedule that includes two games against the Steelers along with contests against the undefeated New England Patriots, the undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers.

The Ravens likely to need win at least six of their remaining nine games to make the playoffs.

"We can't fool anybody, and we're not going to lie to ourselves," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Every game from here on out, we have to win. We can't afford to lose, especially in our division. If anyone says we can afford to lose one game or two games, they would be lying to themselves.

"We have to win every game from here on out. Are we going to do so? We have the talent to do it, yes. We have to keep that focus from here on out to go on a run and it starts with Pittsburgh."

Ravens coach Brian Billick said the team will know more Tuesday about McAlister's prognosis from a knee injury that was initially speculated to be a torn posterior cruciate ligament that would keep him out four to six weeks, and alternately described more conservatively as a Grade II PCL knee sprain. McAlister jogged and backpedaled in sweats Monday without incident.

"I think we're in pretty good shape," Billick said in a general reference to the team's health.

Pryce, who led the team last season with 13 sacks, is expected to split time with Dwan Edwards after missing the past five games. Billick said that Pryce is likely to play primarily in nickel situations due to conditioning concerns.

"It doesn't hurt, I'm fine," said Pryce, who had metal pins removed from his left wrist before the bye and is playing with a small cast. "I'll play as much as they want me to play. I'm not going to limit myself.

"I think I can make as much impact as J.O. can make, and I think that's saying a lot since that guy's going to the Hall of Fame. Having to watch was probably the toughest thing I've done in my professional career. You just feel hopeless."

Ogden is forecasted to play roughly 30 to 40 snaps against the Steelers. He emerged unscathed from a dozen plays during a 19-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

The 10-time Pro Bowl selection missed five games after spraining his foot during the season opener in Cincinnati.

"It's still sore, but it's not that sharp pain," Ogden said of a toe injury he incurred last December. "It's more dull. I think I can push through that. Will I make it through the whole game? I'm going to see what happens. The football legs aren't 100 percent, but they're there more than they were in the Cincinnati game."

After missing the majority of the past two games, Heap isn't expected to test out his leg until Thursday when the Ravens will begin more strenuous workouts.

"The week off was definitely helpful," Heap said. "Hopefully, it will feel even better by the game."

Flynn said he was nearly back to 100 percent after leaving the Buffalo game when he aggravated his sprained medial collateral ligament.

Terry was noncommittal on whether he would line up this week at right tackle where rookie Marshal Yanda has started six games.

"I don't know what the plan is, to tell you the truth," Terry said.

Billick said he noticed some definite signs of rust during the Ravens' first formal practice since Oct. 20.

"They've got to get back in the rhythm," Billick said. "There were a few things you could see and tell they were away from it a little bit, coaches as well."

Injuries during the first seven games, where the Ravens produced four wins against teams with a combined record of 6-24, doesn't entirely explain their precarious status. A disappointing start has been defined by red-zone scoring issues, a lack of explosive offensive plays, debatable play-calling, a secondary vulnerable to deep passes and no-huddle attacks, a pass rush that has missed Pryce and the sloppiness of committing 57 penalties for 438 yards.

Now, the Ravens have to deal with opponents with a combined record of 34-24, including four division leaders.

"Looking at the schedule, it's mind-boggling the games we have to play," Mason said. "Goodness gracious, we got to go now. It's now or never."

NOTE: Offensive guard Jason Brown's wife gave birth to a boy last week named JW Jason Brown Jr.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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