The Pittsburgh Steelers rank fourth in the NFL in total offense and fifth in scoring despite the absence of three-time Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell, who is embroiled in a long-running contract dispute with the team.
But Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said he is not surprised to learn that Pittsburgh has found success without Bell.
“I think it’s like, since 2015, if you look at their stats, there are a lot of stats in different categories that [show] the Steelers are actually better without him, that they’re better in those categories since 2015 without Le’Veon,” Martindale said before Thursday afternoon’s practice. “So that might be why he’s riding a jet ski down in Miami right now. I don’t know. You can’t think about this. What if [Hall of Fame quarterback] Terry Bradshaw wants to come back and [Hall of Fame wide receiver] Lynn Swann? Oh [expletive].”
The Steelers rank 22nd in the league in rushing, but that’s no fault of James Conner, who has replaced Bell. Conner ranks third in the league in rushing yards with 599 and is tied for third in total touchdowns among running backs with nine with Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Gordon and New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara. In Sunday’s 33-18 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Conner became the first player in franchise history to rush for 100 yards and two touchdowns in three consecutive games.
The Ravens held Conner to 19 yards on nine carries and 25 yards on three receptions in Week 4, but Martindale said no one on the defense is underestimating Conner, who was named Thursday the AFC Offensive Player of the Month.
“He’s the same running back [as] the first time we played him,” Martindale said. “He’s a straight-ahead, no-fair, dodging-type running back that spins on contact, and he’s running hard. That’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Four players back at practice
The Ravens welcomed to Thursday’s practice four of the nine players who were absent from Wednesday’s session, including cornerbacks Brandon Carr (not injury related) and Marlon Humphrey (thigh) and guards Alex Lewis (pinched nerve in neck) and rookie Bradley Bozeman (left calf). Carr participated fully, while Bozeman, Humphrey and Lewis were limited.
Lewis and Humphrey have missed each of the past two games, while Bozeman sat out Sunday’s 36-21 loss at the Carolina Panthers. Bozeman, who started for Lewis in a 24-23 loss to the Saints on Oct. 21, said the time off helped.
“It definitely helped the calf,” said Bozeman, the a sixth-round pick in April’s NFL draft. “I’ll go out there and probably be a little rusty, to be honest with you. I’ve been out for two weeks. We’ll see. We’ll just get back into the grind of things and get back to work.”
But five players did not practice for the second day in a row. They were right tackle James Hurst (back), strong safety Tony Jefferson (hamstring), middle linebacker C.J. Mosley (thigh), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (left ankle) and outside linebacker Tim Williams (right ankle).
Running back Alex Collins, who was limited Wednesday by a foot ailment, also did not take part in Thursday’s session. And rookie wide receiver Jordan Lasley was downgraded to limited participation because of a hamstring injury.
Special teams coordinator/associate head coach Jerry Rosburg did not shed much light on what long snapper Morgan Cox did to draw an illegal-shift penalty that nullified a 7-yard direct-snap-and-run by defensive back Anthony Levine Sr. on a fake punt in the first quarter of the setback to Carolina.
“You’ll have to ask the officials what they saw,” Rosburg said Thursday. “I didn’t see that. Perhaps they did. I didn’t see it on tape that way. It looked like a first down to me. It looked like a 7-yard gain and a first down, and it was a key point in the ball game.”
Pressed further on what would constitute an illegal shift by a long snapper, Rosburg said, “That’s a really good question … perhaps to be asked to someone else.”
Rosburg fully acknowledged that he was tip-toeing around the subject, saying: “I’m dancing around these questions. How’s it going so far?”
» The continued absence of Stanley and Hurst might not bode well for an offensive line that is tasked with holding off a Steelers defense that is tied for second in the NFL in sacks with 24. But offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg expressed confidence in whomever starts up front Sunday.
“I know one thing and that [it’s] a great opportunity for the fellas that are available — a great opportunity,” he said. “That continuity goes a long way. So we have to gain some continuity like that — period.”
» Newly-acquired running back Ty Montgomery averaged 31.1 yards on seven kick returns with the Green Bay Packers this season, which would lead the Ravens in both departments. Rosburg did not rule out the possibility that Montgomery could return kicks Sunday against Pittsburgh.
“We see him around the league, and he’s a very versatile player,” Rosburg said. “I’m sure that’s why our people and our offense are very interested in him, too. He’s a very versatile player. I see a guy that runs the ball with elusiveness, but also a physicality. I like that about returners. I like returners that can break a tackle and fall forward. He certainly brings that to the ball game.”
» Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs might no longer provide the tasty soundbite to stir up the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, but he still knows how to captivate the locker room, according to Matindale.
“He’s really pretty calm, and he says some brilliant things in that room that really lock everybody in,” Martindale said. “He knows how important this game is to the city, and he knows how important this game is to us and the organization as well. So he’s really focused. You guys see the character. We see the leader, and I can’t express that enough, about how well he has led this defense and, really, led this team. That’s just how he is, and that’s really how he always is every week.”