Ravens running back Ray Rice has a "significant" bruise on his knee, making him the most critical question mark heading into Sunday's AFC North showdown at the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.
It is believed that Rice suffered a bruise on the front of his right knee before leaving in the fourth quarter Sunday. According to an observer, Rice walked out of M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night with the help of a crutch, but he was basically forced to use it by the team's medical staff.
Losing Rice would be a significant blow because he is the only player to gain more than 100 rushing yards against Pittsburgh in 38 games. A magnetic resonance imaging exam Monday confirmed that there was no cartilage or ligament damage.
Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that Rice could still start Sunday, when the Ravens (2-1) look to tie the Steelers (3-0) -- who will play without Ben Roethlisberger -- atop the division.
"We'll just see how it goes," Harbaugh said. "You got to see how it heals throughout the course of the week."
If Rice is sidelined, the Ravens would replace him with Willis McGahee, their $3.6 million backup. The last time McGahee was the Ravens' feature back was the AFC championship game 21 months ago at Pittsburgh. He rushed for 60yards and two touchdowns on 20carries.
McGahee brings a different style as a runner from Rice. While Rice uses change of direction to elude tacklers, McGahee delivers more of a punch. His stiff-arm at Oakland last season was perhaps the most memorable run of his Ravens career.
"Willis is 240 pounds and he brings it. He's a load," Harbaugh said. "I like the way Willis runs. I like his personality. I like the way he's practiced and the way he's prepared for the season. He'll be ready to go."
As the Ravens' red-zone running back last season, McGahee set career highs in yards per carry (5.0) and touchdowns (14). But there had been speculation that the Ravens were shopping McGahee around as recently as a week ago.
"Everybody on this team knows what Willis is capable of," tight end Todd Heap said. "We've seen him make play after play in this league for our team. It's good to have a guy of his caliber right behind Ray Rice. If Ray goes down, he's going to step up."
The results of Rice's test were viewed as positive by the organization. A bruise could sideline him for a week, but a sprain might have knocked him out for multiple weeks.
Rice injured his knee with about 10 minutes left in Sunday's 24-17 win over the Cleveland Browns. After catching a short pass over the middle, he tried to cut back and duck under nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin. But Rubin grabbed the back of Rice's jersey and forced him down to the ground. Rice's right knee bounced hard off M&T Bank Stadium's FieldTurf.
He went to the huddle and initially lined up for the next play before Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco called a timeout. After the stoppage, Rice went to the bench, where the medical staff examined his knee.
Rice has had a slow start this season after finishing second in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (an average of 127.6) last season. He ranks 21st in total yards (91.7) this year.
"There are going to be injuries throughout the course of the season," Harbaugh said. "Hopefully, we've positioned ourselves with good football players to overcome them. I think we've done that, especially at running back and other positions."
Harbaugh added: "Ray Rice is a good player. We'd sure rather have him."
Besides the availability of Rice, here are other concerns heading into Pittsburgh:
Conduct penalties: The Ravens nearly beat themselves Sunday because they couldn't keep their emotions in check. Almost half the team's penalties were from being out of control.
There was wide receiver Derrick Mason heaving the ball into the air for a delay-of-game penalty, safety Tom Zbikowski tackling Peyton Hillis when he was clearly out of bounds and offensive tackle Michael Oher retaliating against Robaire Smith after the Browns defensive end shoved Heap. That's three penalties in the second half for 35 yards.
Games with Pittsburgh are extra emotional, so Harbaugh might want to remind his players about remaining disciplined.
"You have to focus your energy and channel your emotion to the next play," he said. "When you move out of that, that doesn't help you play well. We have a passionate football team. We want to use our emotions as an advantage. Let's use them to help us win the game."
Pass rush: An emphasis in training camp was improving the pass rush. That hasn't shown up in the regular season so far.
The Ravens have recorded five sacks this season and managed two quarterback hits on Cleveland's Seneca Wallace.
According to Harbaugh, the Ravens have gotten good push on one-on-one battles and have bull-rushed linemen back into quarterbacks.
"We want more sacks," he said. "We want more pressures. We want more quarterback hits."