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As teams have changed, meaning of Ravens-Steelers rivalry has not

A little more than three months after they exchanged a terse handshake near midfield at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his Pittsburgh Steelers counterpart, Mike Tomlin, were together again in an entirely different setting.

At a posh Phoenix resort during the NFL owners meetings in March, the two men, whose teams had played 12 times over the previous five seasons, shared a nice moment. Tomlin congratulated Harbaugh and then tipped his glass to toast the Super Bowl champion Ravens.

There will be no such sentimentality when the Ravens and Steelers meet this afternoon at Heinz Field, but some of the elements that defined one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries are gone.

Two teams that have long dominated the AFC North are now looking up at the Cincinnati Bengals. Two teams that have prided themselves on physical running games are still searching for offensive identities. And guys such as Hines Ward, James Harrison, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed — some of the personalities who defined the rivalry — will be nowhere near Pittsburgh to get cheered or jeered by a yellow towel-waving crowd.

“Definitely, the look of this movie is a little bit different than what we've seen before,” said Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who will undoubtedly be public enemy No. 1 the second he comes out of the tunnel. “But like I said, it's Ravens-Steelers … and once you get into it, it's going to feel like Ravens-Steelers.”

Nobody at either the Ravens' or the Steelers' facilities last week agreed with the outside perception that the matchup has lost a little bit of its luster. After all, since Harbaugh took over as Ravens coach in 2008, nine of the 12 games between the teams have been decided by four points or fewer. While the teams share a grudging respect, the fan bases don't hide their disdain for the other. None of that has changed, even as both teams' rosters continue to evolve.

“That rivalry will always be that rivalry because of the cities, what we feel for each other. Everybody knows that Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh, and we are who we are. It will remain that way through the history of the Ravens,” said Lewis, now an ESPN analyst. “Of course, everything dilutes over time. It's always going to evolve, but that rivalry is always going to be in place.”

However, at least in NFL circles, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have clearly emerged as the league's sexiest rivalry. Beyond that, most of the football talk last week centered on Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis as a member of the Denver Broncos, not on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's bid to win a fourth straight regular-season game at Heinz Field.

Aside from the NFL Network on Wednesday, there was no national media in Owings Mills during the week and CBS has not assigned its top broadcast team to the game, featuring the 3-3 Ravens and the 1-4 Steelers.

“The only reason it has dropped in people's eyes is because both teams aren't as good as they were,” said former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, now an ESPN analyst. “The reason they are looking at San Francisco-Seattle is both are playoff-caliber football teams. If both the Ravens and Steelers are playoff-caliber teams, then we'd be talking about these guys as being huge rivals. Just because the level of competition has slipped a little bit, that's probably why the rivalry is not getting as much fanfare as it normally does.”

Both teams are certainly in different states of transition. The Ravens are just eight months removed from winning the Super Bowl, but their bid to repeat with a significantly overhauled roster has hit early turbulence. Their running game ranks 27th in the NFL and Flacco, last season's Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, has one more interception than touchdown pass.

After missing the playoffs last year, the Steelers lost their first four games this season before beating the New York Jets last week. Pittsburgh's running game ranks 31st in the league, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has turned the ball over 10 times and a normally swarming defense has struggled to create havoc.

“It looks as though they are shells of themselves,” Bettis said. “That's the sad part. You look at these teams and they are totally different teams. The defenses, which used to be the strength, are not really the strengths now. The offenses have shifted [where] the quarterbacks are the guys where, historically, the running backs were kind of the heavy lifters. This is a very, very unique place for the rivalry to be.”

Either the Steelers or the Ravens have won the AFC North in nine of the past 11 years, so the winner of the matchup often got the leg up for the divisional title. When the teams meet today, it will mark the first time since Week 8 of the 2002 season that neither team heads into the matchup with a winning record. Former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott says that shouldn't be used as evidence that the rivalry has waned.

“Do we ever question Michigan-Ohio State?” asked Scott, now an analyst for CBS Sports Network. “I don't care whether one of the teams is ranked nationally and the other isn't, or both of them aren't ranked nationally. You know what it's going to be. It's going to be setting the tone and representing the city. It's going to be a physical game. It's going to be a game that comes down to the wire.”

Scott, who signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2002, said he learned early on during his Ravens tenure how he should feel about Pittsburgh.

“You understand that you have a hatred for that team,” Scott said. “You don't be friends with people like that. You understand that Hines Ward, that they're all like him, they're all dirty, they're all cheap-shot artists. And the most physical team is going to win the rivalry. That week, you understand that you put your big-boy pads on and you call your masseuse and you say, ‘Hey, stretch me out and I'm going to have to double-book you for next week because I'm going to be sore.'”

Back in the day, Scott maintained a war of words with Ward, the Steelers' hard-blocking receiver who got under the skin of a lot of Ravens. Former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe famously nicknamed Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress “Plexiglass.” Former Ravens defensive back James Trapp once stomped on Burress during a game.

Recent matchups, however, have been considerably toned down in terms of extracurricular activity and rhetoric. Even the two presumed current faces of the rivalry — Roethlisberger and Suggs — took turns extolling the other's virtues last week.

Whether the rivalry has lost its luster is open for debate. But times certainly have changed.

“Obviously you miss the Ray Lewises and James Harrisons, those guys who made the rivalry what it was with their passion and the way that they played the game … but it's still going to be a big rivalry. It's still big to us and also to them,” Steelers veteran safety Ryan Clark said. “The rivalry has changed, partly because of the rules of the games. I think the physicality that has defined it throughout the years is a little bit different, but the intensity, the passion, the meaning, also the implications of this game, [are] still very high.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsun

Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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