For most of the past decade-plus, the keystones of the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco.
Heading into Sunday, neither will be taking snaps at Heinz Field.
Roethlisberger is nursing a season-ending elbow injury. Flacco is now under center in Denver, having been sent to the Broncos during the offseason.
The future of the rivalry, at least as far as the quarterback play is concerned, will be on display Sunday; albeit with quarterbacks in different roles.
For now, Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph is minding the shop. Drafted in 2018 with the idea of eventually being Roethlisberger’s successor, Rudolph was pressed into duty in Week 2 as Roethlisberger exited the game with the injury that eventually ended his season.
The Ravens were able to move Flacco thanks to the emergence of Lamar Jackson – also a 2018 draftee. It was the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner’s presence in an offensive game plan that was adjusted to suit his strengths that helped the Ravens surge past Pittsburgh and claim the AFC North championship a season ago.
As Jackson has gotten more comfortable as a passer this season, the Baltimore offense has flourished.
Make no mistake, this is Jackson’s team, and the danger he presents as a passer and a runner creates a dilemma for a Pittsburgh defense that is finding its way after a few early-season struggles.
“We’ve got to be careful, and a lot depends on the coverages you play,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said.
“If you play man coverage, you can’t get past the quarterback because if he gets out, everybody’s got their back to him. You’ve got to be able to mix stuff up and not let them know what you’re doing. You can’t always play man coverage, can’t always play zone coverage. Like in any NFL football game, you’ve got to change things up.”
While Jackson hasn’t started against the Steelers, he’s exactly where Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expected him to be in his professional development.
“We’ve seen some of Lamar Jackson, but we hadn’t seen the totality of it in the ways a lot of people have,” Tomlin said.
“Looking at the tape, obviously it’s grown and he’s experiencing the natural maturation process that you expect from guys from Year 1 to Year 2. He’s doing an awesome job of administering the offense. The offense is really challenging, quite frankly, because it stresses you in a lot of ways.”
Jackson’s skill set may have inspired the Steelers’ decision to sign Taryn Christion to the practice squad on Wednesday.
At least on the surface, the move was enough to give Pittsburgh a look at what Jackson offers.
“He’s done a great job,” Butler said of Christion. “I’m glad we got him. We get a chance to see somebody scramble like that who can run, and he gives us a chance to see if we can run him down. I think we have a fairly fast defense, and it’ll be a challenge for us, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Six days after his first win as an NFL starting quarterback, Rudolph will get his first on-field taste of a Steelers-Ravens rivalry that hovers over the spectrum between begrudging respect and a grudge match.
He did get a feel for it last season, despite punching his inactive card 16 times.
The second-year quarterback from Oklahoma State at least knows that he’ll get a good look at the Ravens’ calling card: Defense.
“I kind of got introduced to it last year, the historical kind of matchup between these two teams and the physicality that goes into it,” Rudolph said. “With any AFC North opponent.
“It’s going to be a physical game. A lot of great players on their defense.
“They fly around well. They’ve got a lot of leaders and they’ll be ready for the challenge.”
He’s also familiar with possibilities of some after-whistle physicality.
“It’s always a physical game when you play these guys and when you play any AFC North opponent,” Rudolph said.
“I’m not worried. We play physical teams every week. So, if they want to bring it a little bit more this week, we’ll be able to
handle it. So, I think, AFC North football.
“I’ve kind of grown up in this culture.
“It’s serious and you want to get after it every time we get a chance to play anyone in our division.”