Steelers use rivals to regroup, reload

The Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Baltimore Ravens this afternoon with little more on the line than a chance to brush up for the playoffs.

It was the Steelers' best game of the season and probably the Baltimore Ravens' worst.

And after the Steelers' 38-7 win that Monday night, talk in the locker rooms percolated with the aroma of a vicious rematch.

Hines Ward told that one of the Ravens, Bart Scott, had threatened to kill him. Ray Lewis told Baltimore reporters that the rematch at the end of the season would be sweet revenge for the Ravens.

But that may have been the season's crescendo. Since that game, the then 6-2 Steelers have gone 4-3, and the then 4-4 Ravens have gone 0-7.

Lewis probably won't even play in this afternoon's rematch, and Ward will have to fend off Scott without the help of Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker and Marvel Smith on offense, and Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu on defense.

While the Ravens will start rookie Troy Smith at quarterback and begin their off-season regrouping the next day, the Steelers will start Charlie Batch as the injured players rest for a home playoff game the following week against Jacksonville, Cleveland or Tennessee.

"This is an opportunity for me to play. I'm excited," said Batch. "When I get my opportunities, yeah, I want to go out there and play. It's something I haven't had much of this year."

Batch is in his sixth year with the Steelers and has started only three games. The Steelers won all three, but none were December games, when back-up quarterbacks expect to be rusty.

Batch has thrown passes in three December games with the Steelers. He's completed 7 of 14 for 103 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 98.2.

In all other games with the Steelers, Batch has a rating of 97.5. Still, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians believes Batch needs to knock off the rust before the playoffs.

"In Week 16, the speed of the game's big," Arians said.

That's why it's crucial for the Steelers' other injury replacements to play. Left tackle Marvel Smith underwent back surgery and is likely gone for the season, so Max Starks will continue in his place. He'll face true speed rushers – on a fast track – for the first time.

Also, return man Allen Rossum – who has done little in exchange for the seventh-round pick it took to acquire him – will most likely give way to either Cedrick Wilson or Willie Reid.

Two other injuries have affected the overall performance of the units on either side of the ball. In the two games since defensive end Aaron Smith went down with an injury, the Steelers have allowed an average of 26.5 points (14.5 in previous 13 games), 5.5 yards per carry (3.6), 368.5 yards of total offense (245) and 0.5 sacks (2.5) per game.

Because of the drastic statistical drop off, many are writing off the Steelers' defense at this point.

"That's fine," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "Everyone can write us off. I think we'll be fine. Everyone's just getting adjusted to each other. When we played Jacksonville, and they did make some big runs, it was almost like guys were doing a little too much, rather than just staying gap sound throughout the whole thing. Some guys were trying to do too much, and it wasn't just one guy – it was a lot of guys."

If the critics aren't writing off the Steelers' defense, they're writing off their running game without Parker. But last week, Najeh Davenport became the first to rush for over 100 yards against the St. Louis Rams this season. The Steelers rushed for 166 yards with their big-backs attack. Could the Steelers possibly benefit from the loss of Parker? Or are the critics correct with their doom and gloom?

"I think maybe people have forgotten what Naj is like and what he's capable of," said guard Alan Faneca. "No one in the locker room feels that way. Everybody's confident in what Naj can do, especially after you saw what he did last week. We can give him the rock and let him tote it."

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