New cast, same feelings between bitter rivals Steelers, Ravens
Ed Reed showed up at Baltimore Ravens practice earlier this week and talked to the team about the hatred he still feels for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Coach John Harbaugh said the newly minted Pro Football Hall of Famer’s presence coincided with some of Reed’s media work and was not planned in advance with the Ravens’ bitter AFC North rival looming.
Either way, Reed pumping up the rivalry spoke volumes about the changing-of-the-guard nature of this series, which resumes Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
When the game kicks off at 1 p.m., there will be no Ben Roethlisberger leading the Steelers or Joe Flacco throwing passes for the Ravens. Terrell Suggs has moved on from the Ravens. Antonio Brown, whose “Immaculate Extension” touchdown catch on Christmas Day 2016 gave the Steelers a division title and knocked the Ravens from contention, also is famously missing.
A series whose foundation was built on Hines Ward and Bart Scott, Reed and Troy Polamalu, Ray Lewis and James Harrison will feature a new cast of characters in the 51st installment (counting postseason) of a rivalry that began in 1996. It will be the first time since 2002 that this game does not feature Roethlisberger, Flacco or Suggs and the first time since 2006 that neither matchup is scheduled to be broadcast in prime time.
“I believe in this rivalry,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sport. The faces are going to change, but the histories are not going to change. Those guys are going to be a part of it always. Hines Ward, Ed Reed, those guys are always going to be a part of it. Now, it’s adding to it.”
The names have changed, but the respect and mutual dislike remains.
“I know for sure we hate them,” said Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, a ninth-year vet who returned to Baltimore after spending his first four seasons with the Ravens. “We hate them. We respect them as men, but we really hate them. … That’s just how it is. That’s the blood between the teams. It’s like God versus the Devil.”
Fewer familiar faces, however, remain. Consider since that Christmas 2016 meeting at Heinz Field, the Steelers have just 16 players and the Ravens 15 remaining from that contest. The matchup Sunday will feature second-year quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson for the Ravens and Mason Rudolph for the Steelers. Each will be making his first start in this series.
“That’s life in the NFL,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said. “It happens quick. You never really know when you’re ready for it. You enjoy it and appreciate it when you have it. It’s just the way it is.”
Time will tell if the Steelers and Ravens can continue to produce the kind of theater that made it arguably the nastiest rivalry in the NFL.
• Scott threatening to kill Ward after the wide receiver’s vicious hits on him and Ed Reed in 2007, leading the Ravens to place an under-the-table bounty on Ward the following season.
• Scott saying of a sack on Roethlisberger that it “felt good to hear the air leave his body.”
• Lewis separating running back Rashard Mendenhall’s shoulder with a vicious tackle.
• A Ryan Clark hit sent Ravens running back Willis McGahee to the hospital and knocked the safety out cold.
• Joey Porter running to the Ravens bus in an attempt to pick a fight with Lewis.
And then there were memorable scoring plays that defined the series.
• Troy Polamalu’s interception return for a touchdown that sealed the 2008 AFC championship game.
• Santonio Holmes’ touchdown catch by an inch that gave the Steelers the division title that season.
• Brown’s division-clinching touchdown stretch in 2016.
Long-time members of the rivalry didn’t need a reminder from a Hall of Fame safety or a history lesson to know about the rivalry’s importance.
“That (stuff) was known from Day 1,” said center Maurkice Pouncey, whose indoctrination in the series came in 2010. “There was no (screwing) around. Players made it known that this is a big-time rivalry and a physical game. It was pretty cool to come into that type of rivalry. It was awesome, especially back in the day with how crazy the hits used to be and how physical it used to be.”
Does it translate into today’s NFL where vicious hits are being policed out of the game?
“After the games, I’m still pretty sore,” Pouncey said, “so I would think so.”
In this era, the torch has been passed to the likes of Rudolph, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and T.J. Watt for the Steelers, and Jackson, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Mark Andrews for the Ravens. They will be tasked with creating new memories to keep the rivalry burning.
“You can pick it up as you go and learn from your elders,” DeCastro said. “They’ll see. It’s obviously a division game, so it’s an important one.”
Through the years, an underlying factor in the development of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry was the competitiveness of the games. Of the past 26 meetings between the teams, 19 have been decided by one score and 13 by three points or fewer.
The Steelers have won four of the past five. Before that, the Ravens won six of seven.
This year, the Ravens are tied with Cleveland atop the AFC North with a 2-2 record. The Steelers, a game behind at 1-3, can forge a tie for the division lead with a victory and a loss by the Browns against San Francisco.
“These are critical games for us,” Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “I know they’ve got different parts moving around, but they like to do the same things — play hard-nosed defense, try to run the ball down your throat, but they are doing it in a different way.”
Pouncey, for one, hopes the young players on the Steelers roster appreciate the intensity of the rivalry when the Ravens visit Heinz Field.
“If they don’t,” he said, “they’ll get their (butt) kicked.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .