After years of watching the Ravens and the Steelers play a series of violent, important, memorable football games, it's not hard to make the case that this AFC North clash is the best rivalry in sports. Even though it hasn't been around for as long some of the most storied rivalries like Bears-Packers, Harvard-Yale or Red Sox-Yankees, it more than makes up for it in passion and in thunder.
The NFL, at its most primal level, is clash of modern gladiators, and no game reminds us of that better than Ravens-Steelers. It's two blue-collar towns with rabid fans who just don't like each other cheering on two blue-collar teams made up of players who also just don't like each other. The stakes are almost always high, the score is almost always close and the hitting is typically so intense, it's breathtaking.
But it feels like a bit of a waste to tell you why this game is so much fun to watch. If you've watched previous installments, you already know. Instead, we asked a few Ravens players to explain what it feels like to be involved in certain aspects of it each year. If you could put yourself in their cleats, what would you see and experience? A few of their anecdotes might make you wish you could strap on a helmet and cover the opening kickoff Sunday night.
What does it feel like to be standing on Heinz Field in the middle of a game when the Steelers crank up "Renegade" by Styx on the stadium loudspeakers?
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs generated a lot of smiles this week when he said playing at Heinz Field was his personal version of walking into Madison Square Garden. Whether you love the Steelers or hate them, you can always count on Heinz Field to provide a great stage for smash-mouth football. And part of that theater is Pittsburgh's tradition of cranking up the volume and blasting Styx's "Renegade" during games. It sends the fans into a towel-whipping frenzy, and during big games, you can literally feel the stadium bouncing up and down.
"That 'Renegade' song is a sweet deal they have going on," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Every time they play that song, the Steelers seem to make a play. Their fans are into it, and the Steelers get up for it. I'm not going to lie, when they put it on, I wouldn't say it doesn't get us a little fired up, too. Obviously, it works pretty well for them, so we'd like to put an end to it."
Said safety Haruki Nakamura: "They should really do a study of how many big plays, turnovers or touchdowns, they've made after they've played that song. It seems to give them just a whole different level of confidence. But we love the emotion of it, too. We know their fans are getting jacked up, and our fans are out there getting jacked up, too, probably fighting their fans in the stands."
What does it feel like to ride the bus to the stadium on game day?
When the players pile onto buses to leave the team hotel and drive to the stadium hours before the game, there is a quiet energy. The ride to the Heinz Field is almost serene. Some players distract themselves with music, others read a Bible and a few cram in some last-minute film study. But as the bus gets closer to the stadium, the scene devolves into madness, especially for a night game when fans have spent the day tailgating.
"It's wild," Ravens guard Marshall Yanda said. "You've got fans flipping you off, going crazy. It's something you get used to, I guess. But it's a great atmosphere.
Said Suggs: "I love playing in this stadium. I love the way they treat me, the welcoming they give me with their No. 1s [middle fingers]. I love it. We're going on the road in probably the toughest stadium to play in the NFL. We will be ready, and we will act accordingly."
What does it feel like to experience the rivalry for the first time?
It's impossible to not feel a little nervous the first time you play in a Ravens-Steelers clash. Most players don't even bother to repeat the cliche that it's just another week in a long NFL season, no more important than the rest.
"Everything is a little different, and every practice is a little more intense," Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "There is no room for error each day. Everyone understands how important it is."
Smith's first game against the Steelers (Sept. 11) also happened to be the first NFL game of his career, and the drive to the stadium with fellow rookie Tandon Doss felt more like a dream than it did reality.
"We kept saying, 'Wow, this is our first NFL game, and it's against the Steelers,'" Smith said. "'Wow.'"
Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson, who has played in 20 of them, has never forgotten how anxious he was for the first one, in 2003, and the challenge he faced on the first snap of the game.
"It was a day game in Pittsburgh, just a really nice day, and my first tackle was against Jerome Bettis," Johnson said. "That's a big dude."
What does it feel like to hit someone so hard, they bleed or break?
No rivalry in football has produced as many wicked hits — some of them legal, others not — as this one. Hines Ward launching himself into Ed Reed. Haloti Ngata breaking Ben Roethlisberger's nose. James Harrison leveling Reed on a kick return. Johnson crushing Ward as he tried to slip open on a crossing route. Troy Polamalu drilling Flacco from his blind side and forcing a key fumble. Suggs nailing Roethlisberger in the end zone and forcing a fumble in the 2011 playoffs.
But few hits come up as often in the discussion as the one Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis put on Steelers running back Rashad Mendenhall on Monday night in 2008. Before the game, Mendenhall texted Ravens running back Ray Rice to tell him he was going to have a "big day" against the Ravens, and Lewis — as he often does — took it personally.
In the third quarter, Mendenhall tried to dart through a hole and Lewis hammered him, breaking the running back's shoulder and ending his season. It was like watching Mendenhall run full speed into a brick wall, then crumple in a heap.
"It was just a one-on-one, man-to-man hit," said Johnson, who calls the hit his favorite in the history of the rivalry. "There was nobody else in the hole. Just him and Ray. And the bigger man won."
What does it feel like to talk trash leading up to a Steelers-Ravens game?
It's kind of a cliche to say that Ravens-Steelers has, over the years, taken on the mentality of a heavyweight boxing match. But there is some truth to it, because much like in boxing — especially when boxing captivated the sports world — the showmanship and pre-fight hype is often as entertaining as the actual contest. Former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe understood that perhaps as well as anyone, and he could always be counted on to toss his share of verbal grenades. Sharpe nicknaming Plaxico Burress, a Steelers wide receiver at the time, "Plexiglass" is still one of the most memorable disses in the series.
The trash talk has been muted somewhat in recent years, although the Steelers did take several digs at Flacco during the NFL lockout, saying the Ravens would never win a Super Bowl with him at quarterback. And Suggs is one of the few players who still loves to stir the pot in the weeklong build-up to the game. Last season, he proudly donned a T-shirt with a cartoon Raven flashing the Steelers its middle finger. After sacking Roethlisberger three times in Week 1 of this season, he uttered one of the best quotes in the history of the series as he jogged off the field, howling that "Roethlisberger's soul may belong to God, but his [butt] belongs to me."
Suggs didn't back away from his role as instigator this week. In fact, he relished it, begging Ward — who has missed several games with an injury — to play this week. Suggs then likened the game to a war, a heavyweight fight and the apocalypse. And he acknowledged he was loving every minute of it.
"I love being the bad guy," Suggs said. "Whatever they are going to do, we will act accordingly."