Ravens' defense welcomes back Pryce with open arms

PITTSBURGH -- Sidelined the past five weeks by a broken left wrist, defensive end Trevor Pryce will return to the lineup for Baltimore on Monday night as the defending AFC North champions face the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that could well determine the direction of the Ravens' 2007 season.

For a Ravens defense that likely will be without starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, and which hasn't tormented opposition quarterbacks quite as much in 2007 as it did last season, the return of its leading sacker from 2006 could provide a timely boost.

At 4-3, Baltimore trails the Steelers by one game in the division, but can hardly afford to fall two games behind its bitter rivals, not given the schedule that confronts the Ravens in coming weeks. Getting the 11-year veteran Pryce back, even if only for pass-rush situations, which is probably how he will be utilized at the outset of his comeback, is regarded as "huge" by Ravens coach Brian Billick. Ravens veterans agree with that assessment.

"Teams have to pay so much attention to him that it helps the rest of us guys, all across the board," said right defensive end Terrell Suggs, who has only two sacks this season. Suggs' drop-off in chasing the quarterback has been attributed in part to Pryce's absence. "You take him away, it does have sort of a trickle-down effect."

Billick conceded that the absence of Pryce, a four-time Pro Bowl performer who registered 13 sacks in 2006, has altered the dynamics of his team's outside pass rush. It has certainly reduced the production.

The Ravens, who finished second in the league in 2006 with 60 sacks, currently have 15 quarterback takedowns. After seven games in 2006, they had 21. Of their 60 sacks last year, 14 came in their two victories over the Steelers. Pryce had two of them in a Nov. 26 shutout in which Ben Roethlisberger went down nine times.

Pryce, 32, was regarded by many in the league as a player in decline when he signed with the Ravens in 2006 following his release by the Denver Broncos after nine mostly strong seasons with the team. He suffered a severe back injury that threatened his career in 2004, and then his sack total dropped to four in 2005. The Broncos no longer viewed him as a top-shelf player.

But in 2006, Pryce resurrected his career. He tied his career high for sacks and helped lift the Ravens to a division title.

"I think I proved a lot of [skeptics] wrong, not just the ones in Denver," Pryce said. "It helped to be surrounded by so many great players on a defensive-minded team, one that had been known for playing great defense. And I think I helped those guys get better, too."

Even without as suffocating a pass rush this year, and despite a spate of injuries, the Ravens statistically rank No. 2 in the NFL in total defense. It's hard to imagine the unit getting much better than its current average of 268.0 yards allowed per game. But Pryce is such a terrific two-way player, as solid anchoring against the run as he is harassing quarterbacks, that Baltimore could be much improved over the second half of the season.

"He's so strong, and he plays whistle to whistle," said Steelers right offensive tackle Willie Colon, who is in his first season as a starter. "I have a lot of respect for him. Once he gets inside on you, it pretty much takes a bazooka to stop him."

The broken wrist that stopped Pryce earlier this year still takes two surgical pins to hold it together, and he will wear a protective cast on Monday night. But Pryce is about as eager to return as the Ravens, with their season perhaps at a crossroad, are to have him back.

"It's hard to sit and watch," Pryce said. "I'm really not a very good spectator."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.