- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2017

OWINGS MILLS — Eric Weddle had a tidbit for Ravens safety Tony Jefferson ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year, Weddle signed a four-year deal with Baltimore and Jefferson joined the Ravens on a three-year contract in the offseason.

“Eric said, ‘You’re not a Raven until you play [the Steelers] and win,’” Jefferson said.

Typically, any contest featuring the Ravens and Steelers, who meet this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, would be appointment viewing — the rivalry is regarded as one of the fiercest in football.

But since last week — when President Trump sparked mass protests across the league after saying any “son of a [expletive]” protesting during the national anthem deserved to be fired — the NFL has been anything but typical.

Look no further than the Ravens circulating a press release Thursday, announcing a new vocal trio that will sing the anthem — two days after their regular singer, Joey Odoms, stepped down because of the negative fan reaction to player protests.

A day earlier, the Maryland Stadium Authority confirmed that extra security has been put in place around the Ray Lewis statue outside the Ravens’ downtown stadium — a precaution taken after angry fans started an online petition demanding the statue be removed because the former linebacker knelt during the anthem on Sunday.

In Maryland and around the country, fans are threatening boycotts, but players across the league are staunchly defending their right to protest racial inequity in the U.S.by kneeling during the anthem.

Football is football,” said Jefferson, who was one of the Ravens to take a knee. “If they’re not supporting us, they’re not really football fans. This is a big time game. We have the opportunity to become No. 1 in our division.

“I know our fans are going to be there. I know they’re going to be loud and support us. This is a football town, so whoever is not going to be there, their seats are probably going to be filled.”

The Ravens have talked about what they will do Sunday for the anthem, but declined to share specifics.

Jefferson and other Ravens on Thursday insisted the team has moved on from last weekend and is focused solely on the Steelers. Baltimore is coming off an embarrassing 44-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London.

Despite a concerted, league-wide effort to talk about “unity’ in the wake of the president’s criticisms, the protests during the national anthem have clearly divided teams, with some players adamant about kneeling during the song — more than 200 took a knee on Sunday, according to some accounts — and others just as adamant about standing.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, asked if it’d be better to keep politics out of the locker room, said, “I wish it was that simple.”

Harbaugh stood for the “Star Spangled Banner” and said he would only take a knee for praying.

“I think it’s a good thing that it’s being talked about,” Harbaugh said. “It’s something that’s a positive, you know? It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be painful, and it’s a tough conversation. But as for us, here, as a football coach, my perspective of our team: I love our players, and I support our players.”

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are dealing with their own backlash among fans after the team chose to stay in the locker room during the national anthem on Sunday.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger created a stir when he released a statement that said he was “unable to sleep” because of his team’s choice and regretted it. Offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva said he was “embarrassed” after being seen standing for the anthem in front of the Steelers‘ tunnel.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was called a racial slur by a volunteer Pittsburgh fire chief, who promptly lost his job.

“We are getting ready for Baltimore,” Tomlin said on a conference call with reporters. “We have not wasted a lot of time on that. Last week, it was unfortunate. … Now, I think it is time for all teams — not only us — to move on and get singularly focused on the playing of football.”

Like the Ravens, the Steelers need to solve their own set of football problems, losing last Sunday to the Chicago Bears in overtime. In the first three weeks, the Steelers haven’t been on the same page offensively.

Both the Ravens and Steelers are 2-1.

In this meeting, there are legitimate football stakes for each team. Another win would help answer a lot of questions.

But there will also be a focus Sunday on what the Ravens and the Steelers do before the game.

Jefferson said at the end of the day, football is a job.

“I plan on becoming a Raven this weekend,” Jefferson said.

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