The atmosphere in and around UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side is again palpably altered, more urgent, more focused, just plain more serious, if such a thing is possible within football's no-nonsense orthodoxy.
Nobody has to be told why.
Nobody has to wonder which week this is; it's been on the schedule plenty long enough, drawing eyes like a magnet from the moment it appeared.
On the practice fields, in the meeting rooms, in places darkened for film study and even in darker outposts within the minds of the combatants, everyone knows what's generating a suddenly more intense emotional paradigm.
That's right, it's Old Dominion Week.
The high-flying Monarchs take the Heinz Field stage Saturday night with the clear intention of preventing Pitt's best start since 2009, so the tension is fairly unbearable.
But ... what?
Oh Steelers-Ravens, right, I guess that could explain the charged mid-week atmosphere along the banks of the Mon.
"It's Ravens-Steelers," Ravens enforcer Terrell Suggs said with little conviction Wednesday on a conference call, "the whole league is watching because there's not a rivalry in football like this game."
"Wait," someone said, "is it bigger than Ravens-Bengals right now?"
Suggs didn't even pause.
"No, I wouldn't say that."
All right then.
Everyone who cares even a little knows that the Ravens-Steelers series has been brutishly contested and that it has turned closer than close -- seven of the past eight and eight of the past 10 regular-season meetings have been decided by three points, but that's got nothing on Pitt-Old Dominion.
Pitt never has beaten Old Dominion, and Old Dominion never has beaten Pitt; you can't get any closer than that. The next points somebody scores in that series will be the first. They're not just two teams that don't like each other; they're two teams that don't even know each other. Talk about stress.
With Ravens-Steelers, or Steelers-Ravens if you must, there's little tension this season. Bewilderment would be closer to the relevant atmospheric. That's certainly how Suggs sounded, likely because his Ravens have been all over the map from a competence standpoint, winning by three touchdowns, losing by three touchdowns, wearing 3-3 like a shirt plucked straight from the hamper.
"Sometimes, it just seem like we're missin' some pieces here and there," said the veteran Baltimore pass-rusher, "and then, at other times, it seems like we can be capable of being one of the best teams in the NFL."
Very much like the Steelers, except for that second part.
Mike Tomlin's team has been the same since listless assemblage since the previous time these teams met, which was Dec. 2 in Baltimore, where the Steelers won, 23-20. But it's going to be more difficult this time, right? I mean Charlie Batch is retired.
Batch led what turned out to be the last meaningful Steelers victory for the foreseeable future that night. Ever since, Ben Roethlisberger has slid toward mediocrity, winning two games in nine starts, a condition most agree is not his fault, at least not entirely.
The Steelers main problem remains the near total absence of a rushing attack, now so severe the franchise is within just a couple of weeks of the first anniversary of its most recent 100-yard performance by a running back. At the moment, the offensive frailty isn't so much a matter of putting together 13 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher, it's more urgently a matter of not having a running back with 100 yards this season.
Felix Jones leads the 2013 Steelers in rushing yards with 92.
It's the middle of October!
Here's a recent verbatim conversation between veteran Steelers writer Gerry Dulac and me, coming as it did in the press box Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Me: "Why is Felix Jones still on this team?"
Gerry: "He's the leading rusher."
This would be the nature of 1-4 teams I suppose. They've got plenty of players who shouldn't be on this roster or many others, most of them fairly anonymous, and deservedly so. The person in line in front of you at the Giant Eagle, for example, could easily be a Steelers tight end.
It has gotten so bad for the Steelers in the ground game that Le'Veon Bell looked like a decent running back to Tomlin in a game he averaged 2.1 yards per carry.
It's not like Tomlin can borrow any intelligence on the matter from the head coach on the other side of the building. Paul Chryst's team can't run very well, either, meaning the Panthers are less than a yard better per carry than the Steelers.
So it's come to this, has it? The Steelers can't run the ball. Pitt can't run the ball. What city am I in?
Also, I wouldn't recommend Tomlin disturb Chryst right now anyway.
You know what week this is, right?
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM