BALTIMORE (AP) — Not too long ago, Terrell Suggs spent extra time in the weight room in anticipation of the hard-hitting, physically exhausting drama known as Steelers vs. Ravens.
“You had to become a different kind of player when you played them,” said Suggs, a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker who’s been dueling Pittsburgh since entering the league in 2003.
Back in heyday of this rivalry, Suggs and teammates Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata, as well as Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward, doled out punishment without compromise. Suggs recalls his preparation for playing against Heath Miller, a 6-foot-5 tight end who enjoyed a pancake block as much as a reception.
“It was, ‘All right, I know I’m going to be fighting with 83, so let me go ahead and get an extra lift and get my neck right,’” Suggs said.
Suggs is one of the few remaining stars in a rivalry that almost always has playoff ramifications and occasionally extends into the postseason. On Sunday, first place in the AFC North will be at stake when Pittsburgh comes to town.
The difference is that Baltimore (3-4) went 5-11 last year and has lost four straight . The Steelers (4-3) have dropped two in a row and are unsure if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be able to play after undergoing knee surgery in mid-October.
If Roethlisberger can’t go, Pittsburgh will turn to Landry Jones, who’s never faced Baltimore and has three career starts.
“The characters have changed in this show,” Suggs said. “But the mentality and the mood is still the same.”
It’s still Steelers-Ravens, regardless of the cast and the mediocre record of each team.
“I told the guys walking off the field, ‘This game has the potential to define you. You will never forget it,’” Suggs said.
Of the last 16 games between these teams, no fewer than a dozen have been decided by three points or fewer.
“We have been in a lot of close football games with these guys. We respect them,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The word “hate” used to thrown around a lot before the Steelers faced the Ravens. Not so much anymore.
“It is at their place; it is a division game,” Tomlin said. “Those are the things that kind of encompass our focus.”
Some things to know about the next installment of a rivalry that remains one of the best in the NFL:
BOUNTIOUS BELL: Patriots coach Bill Belichick raved about Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell before New England’s visit two weeks ago , and Bell backed it up by putting up 149 yards of total offense on a day Roethlisberger watched from the sideline in sweats. Bell is already second on the team in receptions (30) despite missing the first three games while serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
“I don’t really have to do a whole lot,” Jones said. “Just turn around and hand him the ball and watch the show from there.”
WALLACE TRADES SIDES: Ravens receiver Mike Wallace played eight games with the Steelers from 2009-12. Now he’s on Baltimore’s side for the first time.
“Obviously, I know it is probably weird for him being able to experience the rivalry from both sides,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “But I’m sure he will be a professional as usual, ready to make some big-time plays and ready to compete.”
BLAH BLITZBURGH: The Steelers have struggled to generate the big plays defensively that were their hallmark last season under first-year coordinator Keith Butler. Pittsburgh has just eight sacks and eight turnovers nearing the midway point, far off the pace it set in 2015. The return of defensive end Cam Heyward from a hamstring injury should help, though it may also be time for Butler to mix it up after spending most of the first seven games dropping seven or eight men in coverage to protect a young secondary.
“There haven’t been enough opportunities because we’re not doing a good enough job of creating a climate where those opportunities occur,” Tomlin said.
FILLING THE GAPS: The Ravens will finally have a full offensive line after left tackle Ronnie Stanley (foot) and right guard Marshal Yanda healed during the bye week. That should enable Joe Flacco to have more time in the pocket, and it might open up the running game, too.
“It’s just nice to see guys healthy,” Flacco said. “They want to be a part of the team and contribute.”
HEY-BEY’S HEYDAY: Injuries and inconsistent play have made wide receiver a bit of a revolving door behind Brown. Darrius Heyward-Bey has stepped up: His three TD catches are the most he’s had in a season since 2012.
“Everyone loves Hey-Bey,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s great having a guy out there who you can trust.”