Between the jaw-rattling, blind-side hits and the head-butts to the kidneys, Ben Roethlisberger has learned to appreciate the hard-hitting rivalry between the Ravens and his Pittsburgh Steelers, the one that has defined the black-and-blue AFC North.
Last season, though, when the two rivals and playoff hopefuls collided twice in three weeks, Roethlisberger was at the last place he wanted to be — standing safely on the sideline with battered ribs and his arm in a sling.
For the Ravens, the AFC North was not won in those games. But for the Steelers, their hopes took a significant hit when the teams split the season series with their star quarterback out of the lineup and out of harm's way.
"It was painful," Roethlisberger said Wednesday in the Steelers locker room. "I enjoy this rivalry. I know it sounds crazy, but I enjoy two of the best teams going at it. I don't know if it was as painful as if I would have played, but it was painful to sit out."
Roethlisberger, often hobbled by some injury or another, is healthy and back under center heading into Sunday's game at Heinz Field. Even though they haven't faced him since 2011, the Ravens know what Roethlisberger is capable of, especially on his home turf, and the Steelers believe having Roethlisberger could make all the difference this time around.
"Absolutely," said Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger's top wide receiver. "He's a difference-maker every time he's on the field. I think that's increasing our chances to win. We're glad to have him out there because he gives us our best opportunity to win."
Last season, Roethlisberger suffered a sprain to the sternoclavicular joint in his throwing shoulder and a dislocated rib that the quarterback said could have punctured his aorta while getting sacked the week before the Ravens came to town. He would miss three games at the worst possible time for the Steelers.
It was a helpless feeling for Roethlisberger on Nov. 18, watching Jacoby Jones return a punt 63 yards for a touchdown as the Ravens beat Byron Leftwich and the Steelers, 13-10. The loss dropped the Steelers two games behind the Ravens in the AFC North and Leftwich was injured in the loss.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 2, Roethlisberger was close to a return, but was forced to watch again as Charlie Batch, the backup to his backup, threw for 276 yards as the Steelers returned the favor with a 23-20 upset at M&T Bank Stadium.
Roethlisberger would start the next week, but the Steelers couldn't dig themselves out of their hole and finished out of the playoffs with an 8-8 record. The Ravens won the division and eventually the Super Bowl.
"It definitely makes this rivalry that much sweeter," Roethlisberger said. "Congratulations to them for the Super Bowl last year."
The struggling Steelers have won once this season, beating the New York Jets, 19-6, last weekend after starting 0-4. Turnovers and negative plays have hurt them. Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times in five games, intercepted five times and he has fumbled five times, losing four of them.
But Roethlisberger is averaging 299 passing yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL, and he has thrown six touchdown passes. He and Brown are clicking, with the Steelers lining Brown up all over the field to create matchup issues and Roethlisberger throwing him the ball both short and deep. The recent return of reliable tight end Heath Miller has helped, too.
And when it comes to avoiding the pass rush, the NFL has seen few escape artists like Roethlisberger, who shrugged off a Jets defensive lineman to avoid a safety last weekend.
"I don't think a lot of quarterbacks in this league get out of that sack," Miller said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who like Roethlisberger played college football at Miami University of Ohio, said Monday that Roethlisberger is still "a great player."
"He's always been the straw that stirs the drink in Pittsburgh, and it's a big challenge when you play him," Harbaugh said.
Roethlisberger is 7-5 all-time against the Ravens in the regular season, averaging 226 passing yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He is 2-0 against them in the playoffs, with both games being played at Heinz Field.
The Ravens have won three straight regular-season games in Pittsburgh, but Roethlisberger was suspended or injured for two of them.
"The guy is a winner," said Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has sacked more Roethlisberger more often than any other player. "I like that he has his own style. He's not like those other [top quarterbacks]. He's Big Ben. You can't do anything but respect a guy like that and his physical play."
The feeling was mutual for Roethlisberger, who sounded excited about being active in the rivalry again Sunday so the 260-pound kamikaze could crash into him.
"If he hits you and hits you hard, he'll love it," he said. "But he wants to make sure you're OK because he wants you to keep playing because he wants to keep hitting you."
But as excited as Roethlisberger is to play the Ravens again after injuries last season put his powerful right arm in a sling and forced him to be a spectator to the rivalry he loves, the Steelers might be even more excited to have him back on the field, where he could be the difference this time around.
"Obviously, Ben is one of the best players on our team and one of the best quarterbacks in the league," Miller said. "So when we've got him on our side — in a helmet — that's always a plus."
twitter.com/mattvenselCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun