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.
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?