"In this environment, you give everybody the respect," explained Steelers left tackle Max Starks. "But on the field it's a totally different story. They've come on strong of late, one game behind us, so you have to respect that element of it."
The 9-4 Ravens take a three-game winning streak into today's 4:15 p.m. game at M&T Bank Stadium. They've won seven of their last eight and trail the 10-3 Steelers by a game.
The Steelers can not only clinch the AFC North Division title with a win today, they'd lock up a first-round playoff bye. They could also make the playoffs with losses by two of the following three teams: the Patriots, Jets or Dolphins.
The Ravens would clinch a playoff spot with a win, along with combinations of losses among the Patriots, Jets, Dolphins and Colts.
Obviously, there's little doubting the strength of a Ravens team that's winning with a rookie, Joe Flacco, at quarterback. But the surprise would be that the Steelers respect them.
"You respect that they're 9-4, that they can win, but when it comes to playing them, they're …" Starks said as he wandered off in thought. "You cannot print the word, nor can it be said over the radio airwaves, because children are awake."
Starks also said that the Steelers need to "run early and often" to beat the Ravens, but Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has been telling friends that "Ben's ready," in reference to Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback who's thrown 33 passes in each of the last two games. Both games were played in wintry weather conditions, so Arians has no qualms about putting his offense at risk so often.
The Ravens, on the other hand, win with defense and a run game that averages only 3.8 yards per carry, a mere two-tenths better than the Steelers, who rank 29th in the NFL with a 3.6 ypc. average. But the Ravens stick with their run game and rank fifth in the NFL in yards per game. The Steelers are 23rd.
The Ravens list rookie runner Ray Rice as doubtful, so converted fullback Le'Ron McClain, a 265-pounder, and Willis McGahee will carry the balance of the load. McClain leads the Ravens with 606 yards rushing.
"He reminds me a little bit of Jerome (Bettis), the way he runs the ball," said Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith. "Of course, that's a long ways down the road. What is it? His second year? Don't put him in that category yet. But he's got signs of it."
McClain ran over Lawrence Timmons at the goal line to send the previous Ravens-Steelers game into overtime. The Ravens lost that game, and the next two, but have righted themselves, as has Flacco, the rookie quarterback.
In leading the Ravens to seven wins in eight games, Flacco's thrown 12 touchdown passes with only three interceptions. He has a 7-game passer rating of 95.6.
In that same span, Roethlisberger has won six of eight games with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions and a passer rating of 72.3.
Overall, Flacco has a QB rating of 81.3, slightly better than Roethlisberger's 80.1.
"You know Flacco, he's going to take his shots down deep, just like we're going to take our shots down deep," said Starks. "But it is going to be a ball-control, momentum-shifting game where it's going to take a splash play to change momentum because it's going to be a grind-it-out game."
And that's where the joke about the Steelers "running early and often" comes in.
"It's no joke," Starks said. "It's something that is a more concentrated effort this week for us, to be a run-conscious team, because of the fact that's what it's going to take this week rather than a passing assault. You look at the Dallas game, where we had an obvious deficiency in the defense and we knew we'd have to pass because that was their weakness. We had to be more pass-oriented. This week is different."
Perhaps Starks doesn't know his offensive coordinator well enough. Otherwise he'd know that "Ben's ready."