Steelers at Ravens, November 26th 2006. 3:35 on the clock in the 2nd Quarter. The Steelers have the ball on their 18 with a 2nd-and-8. If you want to understand what our rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers is like then watch this play unfold.
The Ravens linebackers shift behind the defensive line, disguising a blitz. Six players rush the passer and Bart Scott slips around the edge unblocked and zeroes-in on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers QB, delivering a vicious blow.
Roethlisberger was left breathless on the turf by the hit, which he often describes as the hardest he has taken in his career, and eventually had to leave the field for medical attention.
Games between these two teams are usually so important that the victor normally takes the division. In 15 seasons, the AFC North has been won by Baltimore or Pittsburgh 11 times. Just look at last season: the division came down to inches and seconds.
Rivalries, you would think, stem from deep historical roots or closely neighbouring cities but neither is true in this case. You could ask why the Ravens wouldn’t have a bigger grudge against Cleveland, since Art Modell did relocate his franchise from there to Baltimore.
This is a rivalry that has grown on the field between warriors on both sides, fighting position battles in the midst of bigger wars.
We’ll start in the 90s, when the Ravens were born. Back then, would anybody have imagined that a Ravens-Steelers rivalry would grow to the size and reputation it has today? Probably not. That’s partly because it’s hard to have an intense rivalry when one team dominates. The Steelers were 6-2 in the games between the two teams between 1996 and 1999, including a 37-0 washout, which to this day is still the largest margin of victory in the series.
The AFC North wasn’t created until the 2002 season and both teams were then in the old AFC Central, where the Steelers were more concerned with their rivalry with Jacksonville. That rivalry gained added spice from off-field incidents between players that spilled onto the field.
Meanwhile, the new Baltimore Ravens struggled. A losing record hurt their pride and after one bitter loss to the Steelers, Ray Lewis reportedly told teammates “we are not going to be chumps anymore to these guys”.
They wouldn’t be for much longer. The overall record between the teams in the 2000s still belongs to Pittsburgh at 13-9, but the Ravens were beginning to find some success and that success added to the intensity of the rivalry.
In 2000, on their way to their first Super Bowl win, the Ravens shut-out the Steelers for the first time, 16-0. They lost the return fixture, in Baltimore, but that was their final loss that season before winning Superbowl XXXV.
The teams met in two post-season games in that decade – the Divisional round in the 2001 season and the Championship game in the 2008 season – with Pittsburgh taking the win both times, 27-10 & 23-14 respectively. However, Baltimore would also achieve a sweep for the first time in 2006 winning 27-0 at M&T then going to Heinz Field taking the win 31-7.
During this time it was also very much apparent the competitive nature of the two sides had ramped up a level and spilled beyond just the field of play.
Ravens at Steelers, September 7th, 2003. Steelers linebacker Joey Porter is standing injured on the touchline, watching the battle unfold – in particular a play by Ray Lewis, imitated Porter’s trademark ‘boot kick’ celebration after a tackle.
Disrespectful? Maybe. Porter thought so. After the game, with the Ravens sitting on the buses waiting to head home, several Steelers, led by an incensed Porter, tried to storm the buses to get at Lewis. Words were exchanged but Lewis refrained from leaving the bus and escalating the situation.
That wasn’t the only incident. The aforementioned Bart Scott supposedly threatened to kill Hines Ward. There were rumours that Terrell Suggs had put a bounty on the heads of two Steelers players. On the field, Ray Lewis and Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward seemed to be at the centre of every incident.
Moving into this decade you could be forgiven for thinking the rivalry has lessened somewhat. I mean Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu no longer take to the field, so many of the big personalities are gone. Certainly, there’s unlikely to be more attempts to rush the opposition bus.
Suggs, who has 19.5 sacks against the Steelers, including post-season, sums it up:
“The characters in this television show have definitely changed. Remember this used to be a game where all the 30 other teams tuned in, even the network used to put this on prime time. When you lose an Ed Reed or a No. 43 [Troy Polamalu] and No. 86 [Hines Ward], it loses some of its flavor.”
But then all you need to do is look at the winning margins on the field and how close they are. Baltimore, in this decade, hold a winning record over Pittsburgh for the first time, at 10-6. Twelve of those games were within one score, emphasising that any little advantage you can get counts.
Talking of which…
Steelers at Ravens, Thanksgiving night, November 28th, 2013. Jacoby Jones grabs the kickoff and makes his way up the field [while I was still on my way back to my seat with my hotdog, wondering why the crowd was getting so noisy – Ed].
After 70 yards, and with only Cortez Allen to beat for the TD, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin inadvertently (or not) steps onto the field of play. Jones has to slightly alter direction and is tackled by Allen. The Ravens had to settle for a field goal on that drive but scraped a 22-20 win. Small margins.
Of current players, only Joe Flacco, Suggs, Roethlisberger and Steelers linebacker James Harrison have much history with the rivalry but the new generation of players understand what these two games each year mean.
Just look at the following quote from John Urschel:
“It was intense from the time we walked out onto the field. Night game, Pittsburgh, Heinz Field, fans on top of you. The way I’d describe it is the heat from the fans just exuded onto the field. You could feel the entire stadium hate you. It was nothing like I’ve ever felt. I’ve played at the Horseshoe [at Ohio State], at Alabama… nothing like this. They just hated us. There was fire coming from the stands. The stadium just kept rocking. The towels, the noise, the heat. I watched this game growing up, the Ravens and Steelers, and obviously you see the great rivalry. But I felt it then, and it was amazing. It’s intense, just intense.”
Truth is, both sides are probably more alike than they care to admit. Hard hitting, stout defences in a division where the winner more than likely takes the crown. Both sides now successful, with Baltimore claiming their first post season victory in Heinz Field in 2015.
Off the field, there’s more professional respect between the teams, but that hasn’t reduced the heat on-field, with new heroes such as Perriman, Dixon, Bell or Brown ready to emerge. Tellingly, these names are on the offensive side of the ball too. Has the pattern of swung to become a shootout, rather than the big hits and bigger stops of the past? This game never used to be about finesse. This division certainly isn’t.
What’s still clear though, is that this is one of the great rivalries in football.
Photo: Keith Allison