PITTSBURGH – Since the NFL’s Cleveland franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996 to become the Ravens, there have been some constants in its battles with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The games have been tough, knock-down, drag-out battles. Personifying those battles were linebacker Ray Lewis for the Ravens and wide receiver Hines Ward for the Steelers.
For the first time since 1996, neither will be on the field tonight at Heinz Field for the first of two meetings between the two AFC heavyweights.
Ward, who joined the Steelers in 1998, retired following the 2011 season as Pittsburgh’s leader in nearly every receiving category.
Lewis, meanwhile, suffered a torn triceps Oct. 14 against Dallas and is likely out for the season. The career of the 37-year-old, who was a first-round pick of Baltimore in 1996, could be over.
“It’s definitely not going to be the same without him out there,” said Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs of Ward. “I think the game will lose a little bit not having No. 86 on the field.
“It’s going to be different not having (Lewis) out there. Both sides are going to be missing pieces that makes this rivalry everything that it is. It’s going to be different, but the game must go on, the show must go on.”
Ward and Lewis won’t be the only players missing. Both the Steelers (6-3) and Ravens (7-2) have major injury issues.
The Steelers will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered shoulder and rib injuries in a win over Kansas City last week, and strong safety Troy Polamalu, who will miss his fifth consecutive game with a calf injury.
In addition to Lewis, Baltimore will be without cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.
“We just focus on the healthy guys,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “The injuries are what they are. We’re not looking to make excuses. Excuses are the tools of the incompetent. I believe we have a competent football team. The ones who are healthy will prepare, will step into the stadium and the level of expectation will be the same.”
The winner of this game will hold first place in the AFC North with a key tiebreaker over the other.
Though with another meeting in two weeks in Baltimore, that advantage could be short lived.
“It’s a big game because of what we’ve got going on this year,” said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. “It’s definitely a big game. It’s getting to crunch time, and we’ve got a lot of division games coming up. We want to win the division, and we need to win our division games.”
With Roethlisberger out, Byron Leftwich will make his first start with the Steelers. Leftwich hasn’t started an NFL game since 2009, his one season with Tampa Bay.
“Any time you lose a quarterback like Ben, let’s be honest, I think he was playing on an MVP level,” said Leftwich, who was 7-14 for 73 yards subbing for Roethlisberger after he was injured last week.
“I think he’s an elite quarterback in this league, and he’s down. We all understand that. We all understand everybody’s opinion and how they feel about the situation. ... There’s no need for me to think about what-ifs. The game is going to be (played) and somebody is going to win it. I’m just trying to do my part to make sure it’s us.”
Odds and end zones
Since 2004, the Steelers are 0-4 against the Ravens in games not started by Roethlisberger. ... Running back Rashard Mendenhall will return to the Steelers’ starting lineup after missing the past four games with a sore Achilles’ tendon. ... The Steelers are 6-0 in Sunday night games at Heinz Field, including 3-0 against Baltimore. ... For the second time this season, the Steelers will wear their 1934 throwback jerseys. They wore them in a 27-12 victory over Washington Oct. 28.