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'Play football and tackle well'

Posted Dec 7, 2017

Defense prepared to rally together.

As they pray for linebacker Ryan Shazier’s recovery and await cornerback Joe Haden’s return, the Steelers must also brace for the Ravens, who threw and caught the ball better last Sunday than they had all season.

The challenge for the Steelers’ defense will be what it always is, regardless of who’s playing defense for the Steelers.

“Play football and tackle well,” defensive end and defensive captain Cam Heyward acknowledged. “We all know there are injuries. It sucks it had to be the guys we’ve lost so far. It just means other guys get a chance to step up.

“We expect them to perform big.”

The Steelers were already without Haden (fibula) and free safety Mike Mitchell (ankle) when the ball was kicked off last Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

They lost Shazier (back) on the third defensive snap.

Late in the second quarter, they lined up for a third-and-7 from the 50-yard line with outside linebackers Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats, inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and safety Robert Golden deployed where starters who were either injured or in need of a blow might have otherwise been.

Rookie Cam Sutton ended up replacing Sensabaugh at left cornerback at the start of the third quarter and Matakevich was eventually knocked out of the game (shoulder) in the second half.

“It’s the next-man-up mentality,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt maintained. “It’s tough without Ryan in the middle but we have the guys that can kind of rally around each other.”

Reinforcements arrived on Wednesday in the form of former Steelers linebacker Sean Spence, who played three games for the Colts this season before being cut in October, and Mitchell, who began the week’s on-field preparation “optimistic” he’d be able to play this Sunday night against the Ravens.

Spence got “a couple reps with the No. 1s (the first-team defense),” upon his return.

“I think trying to get me back in the flow of things, get me back familiar with the calls and how they do things around here,” he said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

Sutton, meanwhile, can prepare for whatever he’ll be asked to do against Baltimore with two quarters of NFL experience under his belt.

“Kind of a surreal moment,” he said of his debut game in Cincinnati. “It’s all about how you approach everything, your mindset, just that mentality and I guess you could say that hunger to be out there playing for the guy next to you.

“Everything else falls in place from there.”

Things fell into place in the fourth quarter against the Bengals with Sutton playing for Sensabaugh and with inside linebacker L.J. Fort having replaced Matakevich. The Steelers’ defense forced three-and-outs on Cincinnati’s final two possessions (each of which included a sack of quarterback Andy Dalton). That set the Steelers’ offense up for drives that produced the game-tying touchdown and then the game-winning field goal in succession.

The Ravens will arrive at Heinz Field tied for No. 12 in the NFL in rushing and with quarterback Joe Flacco having thrown for 269 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 44-20 victory over Detroit.

“Statistically and in terms of effectiveness it was our best passing game,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said.

So the Steelers will have that to contend with, as well as the emotional blow of the injury suffered by Shazier.

Heyward insisted they’ll be able to handle the latter “because Ryan wants us to play hard.

“Ryan wants us to all do well,” Heyward continued. “It sucks not having him out there. It sucks, the injury that happened. I think the air was let out of the building for a while, but we understand we have to keep playing.

“We know it’s not easy. He was an integral part of our defense, of our team. We keep him in our prayers, we keep in contact with him and then we try to focus on football.”