To avoid yellow penalty flags, the Ravens are going to have to stop seeing red.
With a Sunday night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers looming, the Ravens know they must rein in their emotions if they harbor any hope of leaving Heinz field with a victory.
But with first place in the AFC North, positioning for a first-round playoff bye and a home game in the postseason, and a general contempt for each other thrown into the mix, the caldron is practically bubbling over.
"Emotions will be running high, especially being there," running back Ray Rice said Wednesday. "Playing there is obviously different. I'm sure they say the same about playing here at M&T Bank. So the emotions are going to be running high early. We've got to control ourselves and try to stay away from the unwanted penalties. If we get a penalty for being aggressive, that's a little different. But the self-inflicted wounds — offsides, pushing after the play, that kind of stuff — you really don't want to get into that kind of battle. It's already hard enough to execute there. To let penalties get in the way of a drive, it can really hurt you."
Added coach John Harbaugh: "Penalties are always really important. It's always a point of emphasis for us. I think what you do is, you look at the ones that you can do something about and you correct those. The ones we can do something about, whether it's a false start — we didn't really have too many holding penalties — but those are always something you look at and see what we can do to correct. The personal foul penalties, I'm not sure what I would tell our guys about that, but you try to be careful about that."
When the Ravens and Steelers meet, geniality is generally thrown out the window. In the first five contests since the beginning of the 2008 season, both teams combined for 13 penalties of the unnecessary roughness or personal foul nature, and many meetings have been punctuated by pushing and shoving that occurred well after the whistle.
Since Harbaugh succeeded Brian Billick as head coach prior to the 2008 campaign, the Ravens have been less disciplined than the Steelers. In nine games, the Ravens have incurred 69 penalties for a total of 612 yards, while Pittsburgh has been whistled 61 times for 508 yards.
But the Ravens have dodged many of the personal foul calls that usually result in 15 yards of damage. After accumulating nine of those types of penalties in the first five contest, the Ravens have been flagged just twice in their last four meetings — a horse-collar tackle by linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and an unsportsmanlike conduct call on defensive end Cory Redding in the season-opening 35-7 rout on Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have committed four of those kinds of penalties in their last two games against the Ravens.
Part of the animosity between the two sides stems from their similarities. Both are blue-collar teams built on commanding defenses that tend to impose their will on opponents and beat them into submission.
"I've always said it, that we are the two most physical teams in the NFL, and we're the only two teams that can play each other like that," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "When other teams try to come and do that, it doesn't fare so well. I think it is because we are so similar. They are our enemy, but even enemies can show respect. So we do respect those guys over there. They're a good football team, and so are we."
But even the most gregarious of players can get involved. Rice tangled with Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu after the running back objected to Polamalu's repeated attempts to wrestle the ball away from Rice after an official whistled the play dead.
Turning a blind eye to an extra shove or a charged expletive requires a lot of maturity, according to Ravens right tackle Michael Oher.
"A ton of it because it's heated," he said. "Our city doesn't like their city, and a lot of stuff is on the line. You've just got to be smart about what you do."
"Definitely, when you get into a game like this, a 15-yarder or any type of penalty like that can be huge," he said. "Change of field position can be devastating at times in whatever half or whatever quarter it comes in. So you've always got to be kind of conscious of those things. Just play the best you can play and don't really focus on them. Just don't try to make the bonehead play."