It is a rivalry that has been talked about more than any other NFL rivalry and perhaps even any sports rivalry in general in the past half decade. When you talk about the Ravens and Steelers, bloodbath, attrition, and grit is what comes to mind for the fans. It is a rivalry that has boasted heavy animosity no only amongst the players but the fanbases as well. Ever rough is a Baltimore-Pittsburgh game on a Sunday afternoon. It is the two games almost every Ravens and Steelers fan marks on their calendars, and hope that a sweep will be in the making of their respective rival. At the end of each season, if both teams have become playoff eligible, we can then only hope that a heaven sent request will be fulfilled and that a playoff matchup between the two will happen, the game in which the winner can truly grab bragging rights regardless of their regular season record against their adversaries.
Defense is what fans favor, the Steelers were known for the impenetrable force that was known as the Steel Curtain in the seventies, that featured memorable players such as the likes of Jack Lambert, Jack Hamm, Joe Greene, and Mel Blount. The seventies were the golden age of football for Pitt, in which their defense anchored them to four Super Bowl titles, though Terry Bradshaw was also nothing short of spectacular.
The Ravens entered the league in 1996, and in 2000 they won the franchise’s first championship on the heels of the greatest rushing defense of all time. The line was spear-headed by 330 pound defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, which allowed their linebacking corp lead by emotional leader Ray Lewis to flow freely to the football seemingly untouched by any opposing offensive lineman. Their secondary was led by a former Steeler, Rod Woodson, who went down as one the greatest DB in Ravens history.
As we very well know, rivalries are not made over night, they take years to develop, often ignited by late hits, extraneous trash talk, and team brawls among other factors. The Ravens did not begin playing the Steelers twice a year until the central division was removed from the league. Even at that, by the time they were playing each other twice a season I believe this rivalry did not begin to take it’s true shape until the 2008-09 playoffs when the teams met in the AFC championship game. Ben Rothlisberger had already led the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory in their 2005-06 campaign under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin was just his second year in as the head coach.
The Ravens featured a rookie head coach and QB, John Harbaugh who had spent a good amount of years in Philly as the special teams coach was in his first year at the helm of an NFL franchise. Then there was Joe Flacco, who up until playoff time was barley known by anybody who was not affiliated with Baltimore’s football team at the time, found himself one win away from being able to contend for a Super Bowl title his rookie season.
While new faces were found on the offenses, familiar sights were seen on the defensive side of the ball were found. The same players were on both defensive teams, just with different names, jerseys, and numbers. Ngata and Kiesel. Lewis and Harrison. Reed and Polamalu. In every aspect of the game they were virtually the same players, just different in name and team.
The game was won by Pitt, 23-14, but it was not the initial defeat that started what would become an unprecedented rivalry. It was Ryan Clark’s hit on Willis McGahee. It was the hit heard ’round the NFL that night. McGahee left on a stretcher, from that point forward, I knew every game regardless of what was at stake would be a war.
A tension as high as any grew quickly, and it was commonplace to see scuffles after whistles multiple times during games. What added to it was the individualism that certain figures took upon themselves to fuel the hate. Terrell Suggs made a point of saying it was his job to destroy Rothlisberger, Hines Ward continued to dish out punishing blocks on Ravens defensive backs. A sound bite captured by NFL Films described the hostility in simplistic beauty, “They don’t like use, and we sure as hell don’t like them.”
The years that followed exhibited that quote in gracious fashion. It grew to the point where it was almost as if each team’s ultimate goal was to beat the other, and not just on the scoreboard, but physically and psychologically as well. The mind games were ever present, the hate signs, the raven hanging from a noose. The fans had just as much fire between them as the players, fights in the venues and venue parking lots were not uncommon. Ravens-Steelers week on social media and networking sites are colorful in every way. There is even a location in Pennsylvania dubbed, “The Ravens-Steelers Battleground,” where every Ravens game is shown at a local bar in which a throng of Steelers fans flock every Sunday during the regular season and ferociously root against Baltimore. Name another rivalry that has that.
Despite both teams dwindling in quality last year, both games were excellent tilts that were decided by less than four points each. The animosity was there as always, and Mike Tomlin’s sideline antics in the Thanksgiving game was talked about more than the games themselves. This is the type of rivalry that not matter how much each team will shine or flaunt in play quality, the two times they meet each season will be games even Vegas gambling experts would be compelled to bet on. The common sports notion that pertains to rivalries as, “Throw out the record books,” is invalid when mentioned in the same sentence as Ravens-Steelers. Season sweeps by either team are very rare, the last coming in 2011-12 in the Ravens’ favor.
This is a rivalry that took the sports world by storm, and it will only continue to get better. Even with all of the original figures starting to leave, the Baltimore and Pittsburgh coaching staffs will undoubtedly make it clear that they hate one another and that losing to them is something that can absolutely not happen. As for us, the ever enthusiastic fans, aside from who wins and who has one each game since this rivalry took off, even in our angst of defeat and elation of victory, we will have known that we have been given the gift of a damn good sixty minutes of football.