"The coaches hate each other, the players hate each other... There's no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner. But the feeling's mutual: They don't like us, and we don't like them. There's no need to hide it, they know it, and we know it. It's going to be one of those black and blue games."
— Steelers WR Hines Ward
Ravens RB Ray Rice (#27) takes the handoff from QB Joe Flacco (#5) and prepares for a confrontation with Lawrence Timmons (#94), James Farrior (#51), and the rest of the Steelers defense in a 2009 contest.
photo: Elizabeth Kuhns
This One's Personal
How does a great sports rivalry begin? Sometimes it starts with the fans. A rivalry game can take on added meaning for a fanbase because of the accumulated memory of great moments and perceived slights from years past. For instance, Art Modell's decision to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1996 gave Cleveland Browns fans plenty of reason to hate the Baltimore Ravens. But it usually takes time for that sort of intensity to translate to the players themselves. The nature of the NFL is that a player can find himself playing for his team's former rival on short notice, so there often isn't time for the players to build animosity toward a particular team beyond what is normal for opponents.
The interesting thing about the rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers is that it didn't start with the fans. It started with the players. It took just a few years, some big games, plenty of crushing hits, and a lot of trash-talking to transform Steelers-Ravens into one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL.
In 1996, the NFL returned to Baltimore after a 12-year absence. Baltimore fans welcomed the Ravens as they had the Colts, but their situation in the league was new. The old Colts had been an AFC East team, and most of their historic rivals still belonged to that division. While there was some history between the two football cities, it had never been at the forefront the way a good divisional rivalry is, and it had faded over time.
Steelers vs. Baltimore Colts
|at Pittsburgh: Steelers, 5-1
|at Baltimore: Steelers, 4-2
|in playoffs: Steelers, 2-0
|Show all 12 scores
PIT 17, BAL 7
PIT 19, BAL 13
BAL 41, PIT 7
BAL 34, PIT 21
PIT 30, BAL 0
PIT 28, BAL 10
PIT 40, BAL 14
BAL 31, PIT 21
PIT 35, BAL 13
PIT 17, BAL 13
PIT 20, BAL 17
PIT 24, BAL 13
Steelers-Colts games were quite rare early on; they played each other only three times from 1950 to 1970. For a long time, the most famous NFL connection between Pittsburgh and Baltimore was the Steelers' decision to cut QB Johnny Unitas during training camp in the 1950s, only to see him go on to break records and win championships for the Colts.
Through a quirk of the NFL's scheduling, Steelers-Colts games became a lot more frequent during the Steelers' dynasty years in the 1970s. The Steelers and their fans had their sights set on the Super Bowl and postseason rivals such as the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys. But there was not much love for the Steelers among their neighbors in Baltimore, who had to deal with an exuberant Steeler fanbase invading their stadium. Pittsburgh also dealt the Colts painful first-round defeats in the playoffs in 1975 at Three Rivers Stadium and in 1976 at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.
At best, Steelers-Colts was a one-way rivalry, and when owner Robert Irsay took the Colts away from Baltimore in the middle of the night in 1984, it was in danger of fading away altogether.
Genesis of a Rivalry
Steelers fans saw the Ravens as Art Modell's team, which was a good reason to want to beat them, but that was chiefly out of resentment for the fact that Modell had seemingly ended Pittsburgh's greatest divisional rivalry. The Browns had been replaced by a team with strange purple uniforms, representing a city that they had never seen as a rival.
But despite all of the changes, the players were the same as before. They still remembered the years of the Browns-Steelers rivalry, which had just seen its first playoff game the year before Art Modell made the announcement that he was moving the team. Even in those early games, you could detect an extra bit of nastiness in the way the Steelers and Ravens finished plays. They didn't like each other.
That nastiness could have faded away as the natural turnover of players took place, but instead, it intensified. Part of the reason may have been that one of the new Ravens was Pro Bowl defensive back Rod Woodson, a team leader who had been a major part of the success of the Steelers defense in the early and mid-1990s.
In 1998, Woodson was released from the San Francisco 49ers, and there was speculation that he might want to return to his old team. Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe dismissed that possibility once and for all with the comment "We're not the Salvation Army." Instead, Woodson signed with Baltimore, where he made a successful transition from cornerback to safety, played four seasons, and returned to the Pro Bowl. And he had no trouble with motivation when it came to playing against his old team twice a year.
After signing with the Ravens, Woodson criticized the Steelers' front office for letting talented players sign with other teams instead of making more of an effort to keep them in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were entering a period of decline, during which they missed the playoffs three years in a row. At the same time, the Ravens were building an identity as a hard-hitting, physical football team. New head coach Brian Billick and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, another departure from the Steelers in 1996, oversaw a formidable defensive unit with linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware patrolling the middle, and Duane Starks and Chris McAlister joining Rod Woodson in the backfield. The Ravens' offense was built around the run and controlling the time of possession, featuring Priest Holmes and later Jamal Lewis in the starring role.
To fans in Pittsburgh, it seemed that the Ravens were trying to copy the formula that had been established by the great Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s, and to which the Steelers had aspired ever since then. That would have been enough by itself to jumpstart the rivalry, but what really made it take off was another part of the Ravens' identity— supreme confidence, or cockiness, depending on your point of view. The trash-talking was about to kick into high gear.
War of Words
It started with the opening game of the 2000 season. After the Ravens gave the Steelers their first shutout loss at Three Rivers Stadium since 1989, Baltimore TE Shannon Sharpe volunteered his opinion on the state of the Steelers: "The Steelers have some real problems that they need to have addressed. That's probably the worst in my 11 years I've seen a Steelers team look. And I'm sure Bill Cowher is very disappointed, because they've got a lot of internal turmoil."
Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher quietly seethed until the rematch later that year in Baltimore, which the Steelers won 9-6, passing the Ravens for second place in the AFC Central and running the Ravens' streak of games without a touchdown to five. Near the end of his postgame press conference, Cowher had a request for the reporters: "Can you guys please go tell Shannon Sharpe that our problems here are fine? And I appreciate his concern after the first game about all the internal problems we had. Tell him we're fine. Thanks."
The Steelers finished the season with a winning record, falling just short of the playoffs, but for the first time in a few years, they seemed to be on the right track. The Ravens rode out their offensive dry spell with the help of a defense that allowed the fewest points in NFL history for a 16-game season, and continued their dominance all the way to a 34-7 win over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. The championship talk created even more fuel for the rivalry. Some commentators praised the 2000 Ravens defense as the best ever, even ahead of the 1970s Steel Curtain teams. Ray Lewis greater than Jack Lambert? The Steelers and their fans took such talk as a challenge to the team.
A Three-Round Fight
When the Steelers hosted the Ravens in November, they felt that they had something to prove against the defending champions. Pittsburgh believed that their defense, led by linebackers Jason Gildon and Joey Porter, was every bit as good as the Ravens' much-lauded defensive unit. The game was supposed to settle that score, but it took an unexpected turn that only added to the argument between the two teams. The Ravens won 13-10, with Steelers kicker Kris Brown missing four field goals! It was the Ravens' third consecutive win in Pittsburgh. Porter argued that "They won the game, but they definitely know how good our defense is." The Ravens disagreed with that assessment.
Takeo Spikes and the Movies
The Ravens and Steelers may have set a record for trash-talking during the 2001 AFC Central race. One of their biggest arguments during that season centered on a player who wasn't on either team!
It all started with a seemingly inocuous comment by Steelers RB Jerome Bettis in a sports magazine about Bengals LB Takeo Spikes. Bettis said that he believed Spikes was as good a linebacker as Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis for the Ravens; Spikes just didn't get as much attention because he didn't have as good a supporting cast.
Ray Lewis siezed on the apparent slight as motivation for the Ravens' upcoming game against Pittsburgh, which Bettis was expected to miss with a groin injury. “Jerome saying Takeo Spikes is better than me? Let's go find out. They have to come here in three, four days regardless of what's coming out of their mouths. Tell him to tape that groin up and come see me at PSINet.”
Bettis said he intended no offense. “I'm trying to compliment another guy. So he brings that into a Steelers story? I guess they're jumping on anything right now.”
But Lewis would have none of it, and he was annoyed by WR Plaxico Burress's talk of the Steelers physically beating the Ravens. “It kind of ticks you off. You want to just play football, but these guys want to trash talk,” Lewis said. “You talk about what Plaxico Burress said, you talk about what Jerome Bettis said, man, that's garbage.”
“I've always said you don't have to respect me, but don't ever disrespect me," Lewis continued. "For those guys to say what they're saying now, it's ignorant. They have a good defense this year. I'm not even going to say great. But we've been there, we've done this before. There's no person on this defense, first team or second team, that I would trade for any one of their starters.”
LB Joey Porter of the Steelers fired back. “That's good, cause we wouldn't take none of their guys neither!”
Ravens TE Shannon Sharpe likely had the most interesting quote of the entire ordeal when he offered his view of Bettis' comparison of Ray Lewis and Takeo Spikes.
“That's like saying Dude, Where's My Car? is just as good as Titanic. At some point in time, you've got to be realistic,” Sharpe said. “I don't mean no disrespect to Takeo, because Takeo Spikes is a great football player, but he's not Ray Lewis. Let's not fool ourselves.”
As it happened, the Ravens were scheduled to play the Bengals the week after they played the Steelers. Takeo Spikes was asked about Sharpe's comment and finally got to contribute to all the trash-talking: “OK, since he wants to be Siskel and Ebert and rate movies, I'll rate this movie. I see him as if he were the movie Bring It On. He's nothing but a cheerleader."
David Ginsburg, AP, "Ray Lewis irked by comparison to Takeo Spikes," Dec. 13, 2001
Mark Curnette, Cincinnati Enquirer, "Stars' war of words," Dec. 20, 2001
The week leading up to the rematch in Baltimore was a frenzy of trash-talking from both sides. With the AFC Central title hanging in the balance, and the game scheduled to air nationally on ESPN's Sunday Night Football, ESPN seized on every soundbite they could get, and the players did not disappoint. Steelers WR Plaxico Burress proclaimed that the Steelers had "physically beat" the Ravens in their earlier contest. Shannon Sharpe replied, "If Hines Ward would have said that, as physical as he plays the game, OK, I could lend some credence to that. But 'Plexiglass'? No."
Hines Ward had leveled a hit on Rod Woodson during the teams' first meeting that had caught the Baltimore safety off guard and given him a bloody nose. Woodson and the Ravens considered the hit a cheap shot and made it clear that they hoped to get back at Ward. There were even rumors that the Ravens had placed a bounty on the Steelers' two top receivers, pooling money to give as a reward to the defender who was able to knock either Ward or Burress out of the game. NFL policy strictly forbids such a cash reward, but there was never any evidence that the bounty talk was more than a rumor.
Then Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa caused a stir when he dared Steelers fans to follow him into a bathroom after the game, to which Steelers defensive back Lee Flowers responded, "We don't have no wimpy fans. Make sure his big butt shows up on the field Sunday."
The game was physical and hard-hitting as advertised, with the Steelers prevailing 26-21 to clinch the last AFC Central division title. The game-turning play was a 90-yard touchdown pass from Kordell Stewart to Bobby Shaw after a Ravens punt had pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory. It was the Steelers' fifth consecutive win in Baltimore.
The win sent Pittsburgh to the playoffs for the first time since 1997, but their battle with the Ravens was far from over. Baltimore made it back to the playoffs as a wild card for the second year in a row, and after demolishing the Dolphins in Miami 20-3, they were confident that they could stick it to the hated Steelers by knocking them out of the playoffs at Heinz Field in the divisional round. Baltimore linebacker Jamie Sharper had a warning specifically for Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who was expected to return after missing several games due to injury: "Everybody said they're the best team... We'll see. If the Bus is smart, he won't play."
To the shock of Steelers fans, Bettis did not play in the game when a painkiller shot minutes before the game hit a nerve, leaving his leg numb. But the Pittsburgh defense took over: CB Chad Scott intercepted Ravens QB Elvis Grbac's first pass of the game to set up the Steelers' first score. The Steelers held Baltimore's offense to under 150 total yards and 20 minutes of possession in the first playoff loss in the history of the Baltimore Ravens. Shannon Sharpe admitted after the game that on this occasion, at least, the Steelers had been the better team. The Steelers went on to lose in the AFC Championship to the New England Patriots.
The Best of Enemies
The epic 2001 season may have been over for the Steelers and Ravens, but their rivalry had taken hold for good, among both the players and the fans. It now seemed like a natural decision for the two teams to remain division rivals under the NFL's 2002 realignment into four-team divisions.
Since the creation of the AFC North, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry has been very closely contested, and almost every game has had playoff implications. In the division's first nine years of existence, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have won the AFC North a combined seven times. Steelers-Ravens games have become synonymous with hard-hitting, physical football, to the point that even fans of teams outside the AFC North look forward to them. Here are a few of the highlights over the years:
Steelers WR Plaxico Burress and Ravens CB James Trapp were ejected from a game in 2002 for fighting.
In 2003, the Steelers' Joey Porter, sidelined from Pittsburgh's season opener against the Ravens because of wounds he suffered in a random shooting spree in Denver, angrily confronted the Ravens' Ray Lewis after the game because he believed Lewis was mocking Porter's sack celebration, "the Boot."
Baltimore hosted Pittsburgh in the final regular-season game of the 2003 season, on the face of it a meaningless game because the Ravens had already clinched their playoff position and the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs. But the Ravens' starters remained on the field for the entire game, a 13-10 overtime win for Baltimore.
As he did with many things, Joey Porter voiced his opinion on Brian Billick's handling of the game: "A smart coach, you don't play your players that long in a regular-season game that has no meaning.... And he played them all the way to the end in overtime, just to beat us. That lets you know how serious the rivalry is."
The Ravens' win did mark the end of the Steelers' six-game winning streak in Baltimore, and the Steelers would not win at M&T Bank Stadium again for five years. At the same time, it likely improved the Steelers' draft position enough for them to select QB Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL draft.
In 2004, the Ravens were the only team to beat the Steelers in their 15-1 regular season.
Joey Porter again drew the anger of the Ravens during a 2004 game when he pushed Baltimore TE Todd Heap to the ground after Heap had clearly been injured on the previous play.
In three consecutive contests from 2004-2005, the Ravens knocked the Steelers' starting quarterback out of the game.
The Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger 14 times in two routs of the Steelers by a combined score of 58-7 during the 2006 season, including a late-season win in Pittsburgh that killed the defending champion Steelers' chance to return to the playoffs.
In 2007, the Steelers commemorated their 75th season in the NFL at a Monday night game against the Ravens that ended up being a 38-7 blowout. On a running play just before halftime, Hines Ward delivered a crushing block to Ed Reed that sent the Ravens cornerback to the ground in a heap. Ward began motioning for the trainers to come on the field while the play was still ongoing, and ESPN's cameras caught footage of QB Terry Bradshaw and other Pittsburgh legends on the sideline cringing at the force of Ward's block.
When Steelers 2008 first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall learned he would get his first start at RB against Baltimore on Monday Night Football, he sent a text message to his friend Ray Rice, a rookie running back for the Ravens, predicting that he would have "a big game."
Rice shared the text with his teammates on the Ravens defense, who prided themselves in the fact that they had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in over 20 games. Quoth LB Bart Scott, "Thanks for the bulletin-board material, rookie."
In a contest that was inury-filled for both sides, Mendenhall was knocked out of the game with a fractured shoulder on a hit by Ray Lewis in the third quarter; Mendenhall had gained 30 yards on the day.
- A few weeks later, Ravens LB Terrell Suggs invited controversy when he told a sports talk radio host that "the bounty was out on [Mendenhall] and the bounty was out on Hines. We just didn't get him between the whistles."
Suggs later provided a clarification, saying "There wasn't any bounty." This not being his first experience with the situation, Ward told ESPN that he considered the Ravens' talk of a bounty on him "a big honor," but added that "all I have to say to Mr. Suggs is that there's an NFL policy he should read."
A New Chapter
In 2008, the Steelers and Ravens boasted the NFL's #1 and #2 defenses. Though the Steelers offense struggled to keep drives going in some games, Pittsburgh's defense looked Super Bowl-worthy, impressively outpacing the rest of the league in allowing the fewest yards per play. Meanwhile, the Ravens had finally found their own young franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco from the University of Delaware, giving them the missing piece they needed to become a Super Bowl contender again.
The only problem? Only one of the two teams could go to the Super Bowl.
Both of the regular-season meetings came down to razor-thin margins. In the matchup at Heinz Field, the Ravens seemed to be in control with a 13-3 third-quarter lead, but Roethlisberger threaded a touchdown pass to WR Santonio Holmes on third and long. Then LBs James Harrison and Lamar Woodley forced Flacco to fumble and returned the ball for a touchdown, and just like that, the Steelers were ahead. Pittsburgh would go on to win the game with a field goal in overtime.
The stakes were raised when the teams met again in Week 15 at M&T Bank Stadium. Neither team was able to scratch its way into the end zone until the very last minute. Well, if you ask the Ravens, not even then.
Baltimore was clinging to a 9-6 lead with the Steelers four yards away from a winning touchdown. The Steelers had driven from their own 8 yardline and now faced third and goal with 50 seconds left. Roethlisberger scrambled almost to the left sideline, then back to the middle, before finding WR Santonio Holmes standing just inside the end zone. Holmes caught the ball, but the Ravens' defensive pressure forced him to lunge back onto the field of play as he caught the ball. The officials on the field ruled that Holmes had caught the ball just outside the end zone, which would set up a fourth and inches play with everything on the line.
The replay booth called for a review of the play, but most fans expected the call to remain the same— the play was so close that it was difficult to tell whether Holmes had possessed the ball across the plane of the goal line. But referee Walt Coleman reversed the call, signalling a Steelers touchdown! Baltimore fans were in disbelief, as were sportscasters who wanted to see whether Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would go for the touchdown or settle for a tying field goal. But the NFL reviewed Coleman's decision and ruled that it had been correct— Holmes had possessed the ball inside the end zone by about three inches.
Those three inches clinched the 2008 AFC North title for the Steelers and forced the Ravens to win their remaining two games in order to make the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Ravens tore through their next four opponents, defeating the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in their own stadium to advance to the AFC Championship. Meanwhile, the Steelers got a much-needed bye week and stifled the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field.
The Ravens and Steelers were on a collision course for the biggest game in the history of their rivalry, the first all-AFC-North conference championship.
"Us and the Ravens. It'd be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be the AFC Championship Game.
— Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Playing for Pride
More than anything else, what defines the rivalry between the Steelers and Ravens is pride. Both teams know what is like to stand at the NFL's summit. They don't just think they're good; they know it. And they aren't about to be intimidated into changing their minds.
"It's almost surreal. All of a sudden, everything's different. You go into this dark place [...] and suddenly there's nothing outside of that moment, outside of that stadium. It's unique to these games, and yet, both teams are so comfortable in that place. It's where we're supposed to be. It's where they're supposed to be."
— Ravens head coach John Harbaugh
Source: Albert Breer, NFL Network reporter