Tomlin Takes

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'Tomlin's Takes' on Steelers-Ravens, T.J., Ahkello

The rivalry: When the Steelers and Ravens play on Sunday at 1 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium, there will be a lot on the line.

Both teams go into the game with a shot at one of the AFC's final two playoff spots, with both teams needing a win to stay in contention.

And what you can expect is a typical Steelers-Ravens game, one that is a hard-hitting AFC North battle from start to finish.

"Obviously, there's a lot at stake," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But it doesn't have to be a lot at stake. It's Pittsburgh and the Ravens. I think anybody that follows professional sport knows what that means. We're going into their venue, a hostile environment in a big-time circumstance. Our guys will be inspired by that. The Ravens bring out the best in us. They do."

It's two teams that are incredibly familiar with each other, playing twice a year. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played against the Ravens 26 times in the regular season in his 18 seasons, with a 16-10 record.

"Make no mistake, this series is special because of the men that have played in it," said Tomlin. "Guys like Ben pitting his skills against (Terrell) Suggs, guys like Hines (Ward) pitting his skills against Ed Reed. You could go on and on and on. That's what makes this series what it is.

"Ben's contributions have been significant. I often tell the young guys a story about the time he got his nose broken in in Baltimore, and he came to the sideline during the timeout and said how do I look? It's just is what it is.

"It's the story of the men. Those Gold Jacket guys, those guys that have unique talent, but it goes beyond their unique talent. They have unique will and those wills were on display with the likes of Ray Lewis and Alan Faneca and others. The list just goes on and on. The quality men that have been a part of both organizations that have pit their skills against one another in significant games makes this series what it is."

Watt he expects: Linebacker T.J. Watt was a man on a mission against the Browns, sacking quarterback Baker Mayfield four times, a career-high for the fiery pass rusher.

Watt now has 21.5 sacks on the season, just one sack shy of tying Hall of Famer Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record of 22.5 sacks, set in 2001, and 1.5 shy of breaking the record with one game remaining this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

Tomlin said it comes as no surprise that Watt has put up the numbers he has this year, even while missing two full games, and a partial third game, this season due to injuries.

"I thought he was capable of that for the last several years," said Tomlin. "His pressure rate relative to sack, to rush opportunities is what screams at you. You know I don't spend a lot of time analyzing the analytics of it. But I would imagine his pressure rate is historic relative to the rush opportunities. So, when you're putting yourself in position to affect the game as often as he does, relative to rush opportunities, the numbers are just a natural component that comes with that.

"His rush rate over the last several years has just been unbelievable in terms of his ability to put pressure on the passer given his opportunities to rush."

Riding that train: After being inactive for eight of the first nine games this season, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon got his shot when Joe Haden missed time with a foot injury, and he hasn't looked back.

Even with Haden back in the fold, Witherspoon, who was acquired via a trade with the Seattle Seahawks in early September, has been on the field weekly and making an impact.

Witherspoon had his third interception of the season when he picked off Mayfield on Monday night, taking advantage of every minute he is on the field to make something happen.

"He got on a moving train and so there was a learning process that had to occur," said Tomlin. "He really helped with that. He is a savvy, cerebral guy who has a very good above the neck game. And so that component of the process ran with pretty good fluidity.

"Just waiting for an opportunity to get in where you fit in was more difficult for him. He's not an accomplished special teams player. So oftentimes, that's how a guy earns the right to get a helmet and then the defensive opportunities are born out of their availability. He really had to wait until a core defender was unavailable before we had an opportunity to work him into the fold. I think Joe Haden missing a block of games was the thing that really gave him an opportunity to display and show his value and what he can bring to us.

"He took off from there and obviously now that we have video evidence of what he's capable of, he's no longer battling for the helmet week in and week out, a battle that he was losing repeatedly because some other guys are more accomplished in a special teams area, particularly a gunner, and things of that nature."

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