Discussing linebacker James Harrison’s(notes) hard hits - and hefty fines - is becoming practically a daily occurrence for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and even Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs(notes) defended his counterpart’s aggressive style of play this week.
A few fines don’t figure to make the Steelers or Ravens any less physical Sunday night.
That’s when another chapter in perhaps the NFL’s fiercest rivalry unfolds at M&T Bank Stadium, where the AFC North co-leaders square off with the inside track to a division title and a likely first-round bye on the line.
Five of the last six meetings between Pittsburgh (8-3) and Baltimore (8-3) have been decided by four points or fewer, and the one that wasn’t - the Steelers’ 23-14 win in the supremely hard-hitting AFC championship game Jan. 18, 2009 - was a two-point game until Troy Polamalu’s(notes) late interception return for a touchdown.
“This is definitely, hands down, the most physical game in the National Football League,” Suggs said. “That’s why everybody is so crazy about it. (These) two teams don’t like each other, but there is a mutual respect.”
Perhaps that’s why Suggs offered his thoughts on the fines handed down to Harrison, who was docked $25,000 for a hit on Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) in the Steelers’ 19-16 overtime road win on Sunday - raising the former defensive player of the year’s 2010 tally to four fines totaling $125,000.
“I think he’s kind of red-flagged,” Suggs said. “Referees are kind of looking for him to see if he breathes on the quarterback wrong. He might get a flag.
“I think there is definitely some injustice.”
Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward(notes) offered much stronger words in defense of his teammate, arguing the league toughened its player safety stance only because it wants to expand to an 18-game season.
“We’re going to keep playing the way we always have been playing,” Ward said. “If they fine us, they fine us. It’s football. I don’t care what type of rules you do, you can’t protect (against) the physicality of this game.”
The ultimate fate of each team’s 16-game season could come down to 60 minutes on Sunday night.
In addition to sole possession of first place, the Ravens would gain a huge edge with a victory considering they beat Pittsburgh 17-14 at Heinz Field on Oct. 3 - the Steelers’ last game before Ben Roethlisberger(notes) returned from his suspension. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would own the tiebreaker - for now - if it wins, due to Baltimore’s Week 2 division loss at Cincinnati.
Roethlisberger’s presence seems to swing the rivalry in Pittsburgh’s favor. Roethlisberger has missed four games against Baltimore due to injury or suspension since entering the league, and the Steelers have lost all four. With him starting, they’re 7-2.
Fittingly, he’s banged up heading into this meeting. Roethlisberger sprained his right foot against Buffalo and was in a walking boot earlier this week, but took nearly all the team’s snaps in practice Wednesday and is expected to suit up Sunday against a team he’s beaten the last five times he’s started.
“Ben is the ultimate competitor,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) said. “That’s what you get out of him. That’s why they made him their franchise quarterback. He is that guy. He is the guy that keeps plays moving when you think plays (should) be dead. That’s the energy that he brings to that ballclub.”
Lewis and Suggs will certainly have Roethlisberger in their sights, as will safety Ed Reed(notes), who missed the teams’ first meeting but has four interceptions and a forced fumble since returning from a hip injury in late October.
“If there’s a significant difference in preparation for this game than the last one, it’s the acknowledgment in this existence of Ed Reed,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Reed has picked off one Roethlisberger pass in eight career meetings.
The Ravens didn’t force any turnovers Sunday against Tampa Bay, but they didn’t need any after another fine performance from Joe Flacco(notes). Baltimore’s third-year quarterback threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-10 win, its eighth straight at home.
In six games since Oct. 17, Flacco has 13 TDs, two interceptions and a 111.6 passer rating - the league’s second-best in that stretch.
Flacco will certainly be preoccupied with dodging Harrison and keeping his eyes on Polamalu on Sunday, and injuries to a few of his chief protectors could make that more difficult. Left tackle Michael Oher(notes) sprained his right knee against the Bucs but is expected to play, while fullback Le’Ron McClain(notes) is doubtful after spraining his ankle Sunday.
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