One of the most physical rivalries in NFL history has been defined by brawn but decided by brains.
Smart play, especially when it comes to turnovers, has been the biggest factor when the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers face each other and likely will surface again when the teams look to take control of the AFC North in Sunday's season opener at M&T Bank Stadium.
The reason the Ravens didn't win the AFC North last season can be traced to failing to block blitzing safety Troy Polamalu in the final regular season game between the teams. Their hopes of advancing in the playoffs can be chalked up to three turnovers in the third quarter of the divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh.
If the Ravens want to knock off the Steelers, they must cut down on the mistakes. In the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have a minus-7 turnover ratio (11 takeaways and 18 giveaways) in eight games against the Steelers. During that same time, the Ravens have a plus-33 turnover ratio (91 takeaways and 58 giveaways) against the rest of the NFL.
"I think they do things that create favorable matchups for them," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Yeah, they are aggressive, but everything they do has a purpose behind it, and they do a good job of setting up those matchups, creating those matchups. And when they get them, they do a good job of capitalizing on them."
The Ravens pride themselves on holding onto the ball. The three seasons in which they had the fewest turnovers all occurred during Harbaugh's tenure (2008-2010).
But the Ravens have failed to win the turnover battle against the Steelers over the past three seasons. In fact, the Ravens have committed multiple turnovers in six of their eight meetings with Pittsburgh since 2008.
The Ravens feel like they're ready for the Steelers defense to open the 2011 season.
"What's the signature of our defense? They take the ball away and then they know what to do with it once they do get it," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "So again, hopefully we're prepared. Based on the looks we get in practice, I'm confident we are."
The Ravens' biggest meltdown in this rivalry came eight months ago in a 31-24 divisional playoff loss at Pittsburgh. The Ravens were unable to hold onto a 14-point halftime lead because of three turnovers on seven offensive snaps in the third quarter: the first fumble of the season by Ray Rice (who was playing with an illness), an interception by Flacco and a fumble by Flacco (center Matt Birk snapped the ball into the side of his leg).
"Other than thinking about it for a couple of months after you lost, we haven't necessarily revisited it too much," Flacco said. "It is what it is. We didn't play very well in the third quarter. They scored some points off of our turnovers, and we weren't quite capable of getting the game back. That game really has no influence on this game."
Others have held onto those bad memories longer. Rice said that fumble has served as motivation heading into this season.
"You just want to get back out there and prove yourself all over again — prove myself right that I'm not a fumbler," he said. "You wonder why a guy like me comes into training camp with an edge, goes out there every day, doesn't want to miss a practice, barely wants to take a rep off… because it's that itch to get back out there for Week 1, and it just so happens that we play the Pittsburgh Steelers."
The margin of error is small in this grudge match because the margin of victory has usually been a field goal. Five of the past eight meetings have been decided by three points.
The number of close games and the impact of them — it usually has division championship or playoff implications — has only added to the allure of this rivalry.
"I tell people all the time: There are no better games to play in for your legacy," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When people across the world hear Baltimore and Pittsburgh, everyone is going to have a front row seat for that because they know exactly what they're going to get for that. I was young enough that I was able to really see the Dallas and San Francisco rivalry when they were really going at it. So, now we've created that rivalry for 16 years. So, to actually be a part of something like that is so special, you almost can't explain it."
Along with trading shots on the field, the Ravens have taken some verbal jabs from the Steelers this offseason.
Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley said Flacco wouldn't win a Super Bowl "in this lifetime." Steelers safety Ryan Clark said this really isn't a rivalry because the Ravens don't beat Pittsburgh often enough.
"They talk a whole lot," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette leading up to the season opener. "They don't like us. I think they don't like us a lot more than we don't like them. I think they have to talk themselves into it, kind of, know what I mean? Since I've been here, we've beat them a lot more than they beat us. They have to talk about it a whole lot."
The Ravens have 20 new players on their 53-man roster, but Lewis has made sure everyone understands the intensity of clashing with the Steelers.
Said Ravens first-round pick Jimmy Smith: "Ray Lewis tells me you will never hate someone so much like you'll hate the Steelers."