Notebook: Steelers in Strong Work Groove

Strong practice ends early, a look at if-lose playoff scenarios, why run game has picked up and much more.

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers expect a physical brawl with their rival Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, a week after encountering a physical brawl with their other rival last Sunday.

Might that be a bit much?

"When you have everything on the line, nothing else matters," said right tackle Marcus Gilbert. "We're trying to get the championship of the AFC North and they're trying to do the same. I don't think any of those variables matter. The most physical team is going to win this game, hands down."

But can the Steelers be at their physical best so soon after a knock-down-drag-out with the Cincinnati Bengals?

"At the end of the day, it's the end of the year," said center Maurkice Pouncey. "It's that time of the year. It's crunch time. It's December football. If you're not ready to play in every single game, I don't care if it's division or anything back-to-back, you shouldn't be in this locker room right now. I know the guys are excited and the practice looked great today, man, so we'll see how things turn out."

Practice went so well, in fact, that Mike Tomlin gave the team a rare early whistle, some 15 minutes before the scheduled finish.

"We did all the same exact reps, it was just a shorter practice today," Pouncey said. "I guess Coach was satisfied. He blew the horn and everybody broke it down. Today was great, but we gotta be better tomorrow."

Tomlin walked around the locker room prior to practice and talked to individuals about a crisp, clean, smart practice. But Pouncey said nothing needed to be said.

"If that stuff has to be mentioned then we're not the organization that we think we are," he said. "We have a lot of older guys and we've played together a long time now. We know the ins and outs. We know the consequences of this game."

PLAYOFF SCENARIOS

If the Steelers beat the Ravens on Sunday, they're in the playoffs as the AFC North champions.

If the Steelers lose, and then beat the Cleveland Browns at home the following week, here the best (but not all) of the scenarios in which they can still make the playoffs:

* Bengals beat the Ravens in Week 17.

* Bills and Patriots beat the Dolphins in Weeks 16 and 17.

* Bills beat Dolphins and Broncos beat Chiefs in Week 16, and Broncos beat Raiders in Week 17.

* Dolphins beat Bills and Broncos beat Chiefs in Week 16, and Patriots beat Dolphins, Broncos beat Raiders in Week 17.

SUCCESS THROUGH THE AIR

The Ravens have beat the Steelers four straight times and six of the last seven. The one Steelers win, though, was a rout. On Nov. 2, 2014 at Heinz Field, the Steelers beat the Ravens, 43-23.

Ben Roethlisberger had a field day. He completed 25 of 37 for 340 yards without an interception, and threw touchdowns passes to Bell, Martavis Bryant (2), Markus Wheaton, Antonio Brown and Matt Spaeth.

"We were clicking," said Le'Veon Bell. "We were on the details. We played a good game, we played everything right, we were making plays. That game two years ago versus the game we just played was the total opposite. Last game we played, we didn't make any plays, not until, really, eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. We didn't run the ball well, we didn't make plays downfield, on the sideline, we were dropping balls, we were hurting ourselves with penalties, turnovers. We didn't play nearly our game."

Roethlisberger was barely healthy for the last game between the teams. He received minimal reps during the practice week and the Steelers came in with a game plan to run the ball and keep the hounds off Roethlisberger's heels. But the Ravens had leads of 10-0 at halftime, 13-0 after three quarters and 21-0 before the Steelers scored two touchdowns.

But Roethlisberger's healthy now and the offense should be much better.

"You gotta respect the things he can do down the field," Bell said. "He can make every throw and we've got playmakers. A.B. automatically demands coverage, double teams all the time, and that opens up things for the other wideouts and our tight ends and guys like Eli (Rogers) over the middle. Even guys like myself go one-on-one with linebackers. I just think when Ben's healthy, he's clicking, he's rolling, there are not too many people you could argue are better than him."

INJURY REPORT

Missing for a second consecutive day were TE Ladarius Green (concussion), DE Stephon Tuitt (knee) and reserve safety Shamarko Thomas (concussion). Missing his first practice of the week was reserve CB Justin Gilbert (illness).

Limited on Thursday were WR Sammie Coates (hamstring), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle) and reserve OLB Anthony Chickillo (ankle).

Coates tweaked his hamstring at Wednesday's practice but had returned that day.

Heyward-Bey said it's still possible he could play, but he didn't sound optimistic.

"He's keeping the door open for me so that's good. That's always positive," said Heyward-Bey. "It's a good thing I'm out there getting some work in to see if I can go and see if I can be a help to the team, so I'm glad he's keeping the door open and we'll see what happens."

QUOTABLE

* Bell on how the run game has improved since last playing the Ravens:

"A lot of times there are multiple plays called in the huddle. I think lately we've just been calling it and running it. We'd call a run play, line up and run it. Rather than have the indecision of what they're in, we just call it and run it."

* Keith Butler on whether James Harrison has been playing inside linebacker:

"Inside linebacker? I don't know if we asked him to play inside. He might've moved around like he was playing inside and acted like he was playing inside. He plays what we call the rover position on third down, so he moves around a little bit as the fourth rusher sometimes and sometimes as a dropper."

* Todd Haley on Green:

"If Ladarius doesn’t play, I think it means our other tight ends -- Jesse JamesXavier Grimble and David Johnson -- have to step up and do 'like' things. And they have done them throughout the season. We've talked a lot about Ladarius lately ... but I think those guys have continued to grow as players and grow within the offense. If Ladarius doesn’t play, I think they are all ready to step up and do the job."

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