Ravens stay focused on the Steelers after challenging week

September 10, 2014|By Jon Meoli, The Baltimore Sun

The short span between the Ravens' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday and tonight's prime-time showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers was made interminable by the release of Ray Rice.

As team and league officials scrambled to quell the controversy surrounding the former running back, the Ravens and their coaches kept their sights on a game heightened in importance by their Week 1 loss and the visiting rival Steelers.

"It's everything," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said of the game. "You don't want to come out [in] an 0-2 hole, especially giving up two at home. Wins in the NFL are hard to come by, so that's why you've got to win your home games. We unfortunately dropped one; [the Bengals] cashed in and they won one, a division game. We've definitely got to cover up some ground, but it all starts with this one come Thursday."

Suggs, the team's longest-tenured player, was one of several Ravens who spoke this week and tried to steer focus back to football. Sunday's 23-16 loss, and the disjointed first half that caused it, existed in the local consciousness for no more than 12 hours.

Then early Monday morning video surfaced of Rice rendering Janay Palmer, who was then his fiancee, unconscious with a punch inside an Atlantic City, N.J., elevator.

Rice was charged with felony aggravated assault for the February incident, and avoided jail time by entering a diversion program. The NFL initially suspended Rice for two games, but the Ravens released him Monday after TMZ Sports posted the video and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

Since then, the Ravens have jammed what is normally a week's worth of mental decompression, physical recovery and strategizing into four days.

The coaching staff broke down film late into Sunday night. Coach John Harbaugh told the team Rice was released during a meeting Monday afternoon, "and it was all business afterwards," backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor said.

The team suited up for a walk-through Monday night, and was uncharacteristically busy the following day because of the weeknight game.

"We normally wouldn't even really be doing too much [on a Tuesday], and we're 90 percent of the way through the game plan and getting ready to go," quarterback Joe Flacco said Tuesday. "We're going to have to be playing really soon, so we have to get our minds right."

Harbaugh observed in meetings and on the practice field that the team has been able to do that.

"You see the results of what they're doing, and it's very good," Harbaugh said. "The assignments are good, the techniques are good and the focus is where it needs to be. I said [Monday]: 'This is professional football.' These are pros, and that's what they'll do."

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome received a similar report Wednesday morning.

Harbaugh "told me that my coaches have done a great job with getting us ready to play Pittsburgh," Newsome said. "That's what I rely on. I talk to John, he gives me the pulse of the team, where things are. And he applauded his coaches for getting this team ready to play a tough Pittsburgh Steelers team tomorrow night."

The timing of the Rice release — during a short week, and a Pittsburgh week at that — hasn't made it any harder to stomach, some players said. Flacco said they have "plenty to worry about" with Pittsburgh to begin with. It has added responsibility to the team leaders who remain, the quarterback said.

Cornerback Lardarius Webb said he believes those leaders have been keeping the team's concentration where it should be. Webb is listed as questionable for tonight's game because of a back injury but said he is ready to play.

"We've been through distractions before," Webb said, adding that Rice's release, a day after the opening day loss, only intensified the feeling that tonight's game is one the team needed to win.

"I feel for it," Webb said, "but we kind of just want this victory. … We still feel like we're the Baltimore Ravens. We still feel like we're the best team in the NFL, and the AFC North at that. We're just going to keep fighting. We're ready to see Pittsburgh on Thursday."

Pittsburgh's annual visit is a marquee game. That the game is being broadcast as the first Thursday game under the league's $275 million agreement with CBS meant it was going to be in the national spotlight, even before the national media descended on Baltimore to cover the fallout of Rice's release.

Yet tonight, the focus will return to the field. The two AFC North powers, who have split their past 12 regular-season games, with 10 of those decided by three points or fewer, will renew a rivalry with much at stake for the hosts.

"Pittsburgh has always been a huge game for us, and a really good game," Flacco said. "We have to go in there with all the focus in the world."

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