Most of the characteristics that have defined what many consider the best rivalry in football remain unchanged. Make no mistake, the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers still don't like each other.
The disdain is well-earned from years of hard hits, tough talk and frantic finishes, from two teams with similar mentalities clashing at least twice a year with the realization that the winner will have the inside track on the division title.
When the Ravens and Steelers meet again Sunday night at Heinz Field, the stakes will be high, as they seemingly always are. But some of the faces of the rivalry, from Ray Lewis' intimidating scowl to Hines Ward's mischievous grin to Ben Roethlisberger's steely gaze, will be missing. And two teams that have long prided themselves on grinding it out on offense and dominating on defense will show just how much they've evolved.
"Jerome Bettis isn't running the football. You don't have Jamal Lewis looking for 2,000 yards. I think both teams have kind of grown and made the transition into the modern day state of football which is more offense," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now an analyst for CBS. "I think they both still play very good defense. It's just not up to the standards that people remembered. Both teams rely on their offenses to put points up. That's certainly what Baltimore is doing."
Heading into a potentially season-defining stretch in which they'll play their archrival twice in a three-week span, the Ravens are 7-2, one game better than the Steelers (6-3). The Ravens have the second-best record in the AFC, mostly because of their Joe Flacco-led offense, not their defense, which has uncharacteristically allowed more yards per game than all but five NFL teams.
The Steelers have relied on the NFL's top-ranked defense, which hasn't been flashy but has given up very little ground, and the play of Roethlisberger. But that formula may have to change after the quarterback, who has long tormented the Ravens, hurt his throwing shoulder and ribs last week and could be out for an extended period. Veteran journeyman Byron Leftwich will make his first start Sunday since 2009.
"It's going to have a little bit of a different feel," said Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. "There is no [Ward], no [Troy Polamalu], no [Lewis], no [Lardarius Webb]. But once that whistle blows and the bullets become live, I don't expect anything less than traditional Ravens-Steelers. It's a good old-fashioned alley fight. … As soon as we walk in their stadium, they're going to lock the gates, but that's what we want so we can get in there and we can have it out."
Suggs, the loquacious linebacker who has embraced his role as a villain in the eyes of Steelers' fans, was mostly mum this week, declining to add to the back-and-forth rhetoric between the teams that has been every bit a part of this rivalry as punishing hits.
In fact, there was far more talk in the week leading up to the game about who wasn't going to play than who was, and that shouldn't be the case, says former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who will do color commentary for the NBC primetime broadcast. Collinsworth said the rivalry — he considers it the NFL's best and doesn't even know what he'd rank second — goes beyond the individual players involved.
"Fans would probably make the worst [general managers] in the league because by the time they learn somebody's name on defense, that guy is probably already past his prime. I hate to say it, but that's the reality. There is a new generation of really good players coming through in this rivalry," said Collinsworth, specifically mentioning Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons and safety Ryan Clark, and Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh also downplayed the number of injuries, saying, "There will be 11 great players out there. … It's one of those games that will be played very well. It will be played very efficiently. It will be a rough, tough game — like they are. That's how they're all played."
Still, the attention has been on the fact that Roethlisberger and Polamalu, a safety who has made many momentum-shifting plays in the rivalry, are both sidelined with injuries, as is the Steelers' No. 2 wide receiver, Antonio Brown.
Ward, the gritty wide receiver who took great joy in punishing the Ravens with clutch catches and thunderous blocks, has retired. Ray Lewis, the Ravens' long-time defensive leader, remains out after having surgery to repair a torn triceps.
The defense Lewis left behind bears very little resemblance to the intimidating group that was long considered one of the NFL's best.
"You look at it and year-in and year-out, Pittsburgh and Baltimore always had a chance because of the defense that kept them in it," Ward said. "I think the transition from the older players to the younger guys has went better with Pittsburgh than Baltimore. For so many years, you were seeing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and those guys. Now, you're not seeing a marquee guy that is out there making a name whereas for years [with the Steelers], it was Joey Porter, then James Harrison and now it passes to [Lawrence] Timmons and [LaMarr] Woodley. In that sense, the defense is going to be in great hands for Pittsburgh more than Baltimore."
However, Ward, who relished the physical battles with his former AFC North foes, applauded the Ravens for changing out of necessity. Flacco, all-purpose running back Ray Rice and speedy second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith have given the organization a much-needed offensive identity.
It was Smith who caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Flacco in the game's final seconds last year at Heinz Field to help the Ravens complete a season sweep of Pittsburgh en route to the division title.
"Flacco and Ray Rice, that's what it's all about. Those guys are explosive players," Ward said. "If you can't go out there and win it on defense, then you have to turn it over to your offense. For Baltimore, that's kind of what they've done. It comes full circle, the evolution of the game, the players that you have and no longer have. They've just evolved into more of an offensive team and they've become balanced on offense. I think Pittsburgh is trying to do the same."
Ward certainly remembers the days where the Ravens asked their quarterback to manage games and rode a dominant defense and physical running back Jamal Lewis to the playoffs. This season, he has watched Flacco getting more and more responsibility to make decisions at the line of scrimmage.
The fifth-year quarterback is on pace to throw a career-high 549 passes while Rice, the two-time Pro Bowl running back, is on pace for 256 carries, which would be his lowest total since his second season. He carried the ball 291 times last year. Still, former Ravens coach and current FOX color commentator Brian Billick said that doesn't mean the Ravens' identity has totally changed.
"People make a mistake to think of a team that's a non-heavy run team as not a physical team," said Billick who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens by relying on a dominant defense and a run-heavy, opportunistic offense. "Oddly enough, it's interesting that Baltimore has gotten away from that a bit as a no-huddle team with Joe Flacco's ability to throw the football and their faith in Torrey Smith. The Pittsburgh Steelers have gotten back to it with their stable of running backs. Pittsburgh is more committed to the run and playing a physical game."
Roethlisberger, who inherited the lead of the Steelers' offense while Bettis was winding down his career and has two Super Bowl titles on his resume, was having arguably the best season of his career when he was slammed down to the grass last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
With him, the Steelers hadn't strayed too far from their roots, featuring a power running game, complimented by Roethlisberger's improvisational skills and downfield weapons Mike Wallace and Heath Miller, among others. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers figure to return to the "old-school" mentality that has worked so well for them in the past.
"There's not an identity crisis here," Cowher said. "Both these teams, they know who they are, and really the bottom line for both these organizations, it's about getting a chance to go to the Super Bowl."
Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun