Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata stepped back onto the Ravens practice field Tuesday, back from the four-game suspension that could have ended his season.
He walked onto the field side-by-side with friend and teammate Terrell Suggs and waved for cameras with a wide smile not quite shielded under his facemask. It was clear the former Pro Bowl defensive tackle was thrilled to get a second chance.
"I feel like I owe these guys," Ngata said of his teammates. "I'm going to do whatever I can do to help the team. I'm definitely just ready to get back out there again."
On Dec. 4, Ngata was suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league's performance-enhancing substances policy. Ngata used Adderall, a stimulant that makes users more alert, reportedly to help him get through the hectic Thanksgiving holidays at home.
Ngata was having one of his finest seasons in recent years, notching 31 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles through 12 games. He was making plays all over the field.
His actions could have been the final blow the Ravens season, but the team rallied without him and reached the playoffs by winning three of its final four games.
"I just want to start off by saying I did make a mistake," Ngata said. "I'm glad the team was able to get us in the playoffs. Hopefully I can help them out on this playoff run."
Ngata said the toughest part of the suspension was the feeling that he let his teammates and his family down. He said they bore the burden, as well.
Personally, he said he felt "retired" as he sat at home in Utah watching the Ravens play on television.
"It was rough, definitely rough," he said. "It felt weird."
Now Ngata is back in his environment. On Tuesday, the mood was as if he had never left.
The only question is how prepared Ngata will be to play up to his usual standard Saturday in Pittsburgh.
When Ngata first returned to the Under Armour Performance Center on Monday, he went up to Head Coach John Harbaugh's office for a talk – and apparently an informal physical. Harbaugh poked at the gigantic defensive tackle's belly to see if he was in shape.
"It's always going to be soft," Ngata joked. "I don't know if that's going to stop him from squeezing."
Ngata said it wasn't tough at all to stay in shape while he was gone because he felt like he owed his teammates at least that.
"I had to make sure I stayed in shape so if we made the playoffs I could make a contribution in the playoff hunt," he said.
Tuesday's practice was light as players' bodies recover, so there wasn't a real indication of Ngata's playing shape. That will come during a more intense practice Wednesday.
As of now, Ngata has provided an emotional boost as Baltimore's defense prepares for a potent Pittsburgh offense that finished the regular season with the second-most yards gained (411.1 per game), just barely behind New Orleans.
"It couldn't happen at a better time," Suggs said of Ngata's return. "He was missed a lot in the locker room, especially by me. … The locker room was kind of back complete.
"It's good to have one of the best interior linemen in the game going into a playoff game like this. It's a great lift."
The Steelers know how big it is for Baltimore, as well. Ngata is a staple in the rivalry, and the man that once broke quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's nose. In 20 career games against Pittsburgh, Ngata has 76 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
"It seems like the times that they have beaten us in the recent history of this series it's always because Haloti Ngata ends up with the ball in his hand, whether he picks it off or something crazy like that," Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin said.