Ben Roethlisberger had just tossed five interceptions and watched the Jacksonville Jaguars dismantle his team, 30-9, before a stunned stadium full of Pittsburgh football fans.
“Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” the Steelers quarterback murmured in a postgame interview Oct. 8, setting off 1,000 pre-emptive obituaries for the kings of the AFC North.
You already know how the 2017 season played out from there. Pittsburgh won 10 of its next 11 games, including a 39-38 classic against the Ravens in which Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards.
Which is a roundabout way of saying the Ravens are unlikely to believe any reports of the Steelers’ demise as they prepare for their annual Sunday night fracas in Pittsburgh.
“We’re going to get their best shot,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “There’s no team that rallies for big games more than they do. They come up big for the big games, and playing the Ravens is a big game, and I’m sure the Steelers will play their best on Sunday night, like they always do against us.”
This has been an unsettled season for the Steelers, who opened by blowing a two-touchdown lead in a tie with the Cleveland Browns and then got torched on their home field by the high-octane Kansas City Chiefs.
The franchise known for its “Steel Curtain” defense has allowed the fourth most total yards of any team in the NFL and leads the league in penalty yardage by more than 30 a game.
The Steelers also seem to lead in tasty off-field controversies around superstar players.
Pittsburgh has ruled the AFC North in recent seasons because of its unmatched skill-position trio of Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
But two of those three legs have become unsteady, with Bell in the fourth week of a holdout and Brown coming off a week in which he publicly argued with first-year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, missed a day of work and was disciplined for it by head coach Mike Tomlin.
Brown even intimated on Twitter that he’d be open to playing in a different city, though he ultimately said, “Obviously, I don’t want to be traded.” He broke two tackles to score a key touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 30-27 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.
Bell’s holdout is the more enduring problem. Several Pittsburgh linemen have ripped into the man they protected through three Pro Bowl seasons. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn,” guard Ramon Foster told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the start of the season.
Tomlin seemed exasperated Tuesday when he faced another round of questions about his missing star. “I’m not talking Le’Veon,” he said. “I’m just not. There’s nothing new to add.”
In a conference call with Baltimore reporters Wednesday, Tomlin brushed aside a question about his team’s overall mood in light of the off-field dramas.
“We’re focused on Baltimore, man. We’ve got a short week,” he said. “It hasn’t been on our radar at all, really. We’re singularly, professionally focused on preparation for this game.”
“I think the noise is more outside the locker room than it is in it,” he said. “Your guys’ job is to report these things and sometimes make a bigger deal of it than it really is. For us, there’s nothing to it. We’re fine. We’re moving and grooving and moving on to the next week. Our mindset is just that it’s about football, so we don’t worry about too much of that other stuff.”
Roethlisberger added that Bell’s holdout feels like particularly old news. “We’re not sitting here wondering when he’s coming back and worrying about him, because we can’t,” he said. “We have to worry about the guys who are here and in the building.”
Bell did his share of damage against the Ravens last year, with 311 total yards and five touchdowns in two games. But Ravens safety Eric Weddle said the defense can’t take anything for granted with second-year back James Conner playing in Bell’s place.
“This is the NFL and the minute we start slighting Conner, he’s going to end up going for like 400 yards on us,” he said. “Le’Veon’s not there, so there’s kind of no point in talking about him. He’s one of the best players in this league, so obviously, having him in there makes their team better. But Conner’s showed he can be an explosive back, he can carry the ball 25-30 times, catch the ball out of the backfield. So their offense hasn’t changed.”
Tomlin said he’s pleased with Conner, who’s rushed for 213 yards and three touchdowns in three games as the team’s featured runner.
“He’s done a heck of a job, not that any of us are surprised by it,” he said. “We expect our second-year guys to take a significant step.”
Compared with Brown and Bell, Roethlisberger has avoided the eye of the storm, though he faced his usual dose of early-season scrutiny.
He threw three interceptions in the Week 1 tie with the Browns and, as seems to happen every year, some analysts leaped to predict his imminent extinction as a top NFL starter. But after three games, he’s carrying his usual excellent 96.2 passer rating and is on pace for his sixth 4,000-yard passing season.
Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victory at Tampa Bay, moving them to 1-1-1, a half-game behind the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the division.
Players on both sides agreed that recent results have little bearing on a Ravens-Steelers matchup. In 2015, for example, a flailing Ravens team with Ryan Mallett at quarterback pushed Pittsburgh to the brink of missing the playoffs with a 20-17 upset in the penultimate game of the season.
“There’s no such thing as a record going into this game,” Roethlisberger said. “This series is kind of its own deal. I don’t care how teams are playing. You can be having the worst season of your life, and this game, just for some reason, means something different.”
The same logic applies to recent off-field happenings.
“Every team has little things that go on. It just so happens that they’re on TV every week, so it gets blown out of proportion when a guy has a blow-up on the sideline,” Weddle said. “We don’t really pay attention to it, because it’s not our team, not our teammates. You’ve been through it within your own team, and most of the time, it doesn’t get out. When it does, you put it to rest and move forward.”