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Without the characters and antics, these Steelers-Ravens games ain't like they used to be

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs talks about past games against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Jeff Zrebiec, Baltimore Sun video)

When Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs was asked the question, he looked at the ground momentarily in silence.

Are you the last the villain in this rivalry?

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It's tough to be the last guy standing, as Suggs is in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens series.

The games are still emotional, intense and go down to the final play, but it's not the same. All the marquee players and top trash talkers have moved on except Suggs in his 14th season.

"Of the old regime? I would say I was one of the last," Suggs said. "The characters have changed in this show. But the mentality and the mood is still the same. Yes, we don't have '92'[Haloti Ngata], '52' [Ray Lewis], '20' [Ed Reed]. They don't have their guys -- '86' [Hines Ward], '43' [Troy Polamalu]. Their '25' [Ryan Clark]. All both teams did was get younger.

"This game has the potential to define you," Suggs said. "You will never forget it. I remember every one -- every big play, every dumb call, every personal foul. I remember all of them. You do not forget these games."

The games were good, but the players made the series. Any Ravens game against Pittsburgh used to be paradise for reporters because the players talked so much trash in the week leading up to the game.

The stories are legend. Who can forget Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe calling Pittsburgh wide receiver Plaxico Burress "Plexiglass" or  Ravens linebacker Bart Scott threatening to kill Ward after a game in 2008?

The top four trash talkers were Sharpe, Ward, Scott and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter. Porter was involved in perhaps the best story of the rivalry.

In August of 2003, Porter missed the first game against the Ravens because of a gunshot blast that hit him outside of a Denver bar. He thought Lewis had mocked his famed boot kick celebration during the game, and wasn't happy about it.

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After the game, Porter was still so mad at Lewis that he wanted to fight him near the Ravens team buses. He rounded up Burress and running back Jerome Bettis to go with him, but they declined.

They told Porter he played on defense and didn't have to play against Lewis. They were on offense and didn't want to get Lewis angry for next year's game.

That's the ultimate in respect.

Porter eventually retaliated on the field with his own version of Lewis's pregame dance when the two teams met in Pittsburgh in the season finale, which Baltimore won, 13-10, in overtime.

Lewis and former Ravens owner Art Modell were public enemies No. 1 and 1A in Pittsburgh for a long period of time. It didn't take Scott, Sharpe and Suggs long to join the fray, especially Suggs, who loves to sprint to the far end of Heinz Field to irritate fans after the pre-game introductions.

"I love playing there, most definitely," Suggs said.

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Sharpe started the bantering between the two teams when he came to Baltimore for the 2000 season.

"We hated them," Sharpe told the Sun in a phone conversation Thursday. "They talked crazy to us, so we talked crazy to them. The Steelers were one of the best teams in that division going back to the 70s, with all of those Hall of Fame players. They prided themselves in being bullies.

"When I first got [to Baltimore in 2000], coach [Brian] Billick told me I could say whatever I wanted, so you know me, I was like an octopus. Once I got my tentacles on you, there was no escape. Billick was one of those bulletin board coaches and so was Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher. It was on."

No player in the brief history of the Ravens has been more despised than Ward. He is the player every opposing fan hates, but would love to have on their team. His peel-back blocks were vicious and cheap, and he once leveled Reed with one in Pittsburgh.

But on Sept. 11, 2011, Jarret Johnson, a decent outside linebacker, became a legend in Baltimore. Ward caught a short-yard pass across the middle and Johnson cut him in half with a tackle. As Ward lay on the turf with his toes pointed up in the air, Johnson got a rousing ovation.

The second biggest hit by a Raven on a Steeler came in 2006 when Scott came untouched off the left side and crushed an unsuspecting Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback. You can find that picture in a lot of homes of Ravens fans.

But those were clean hits. There were some others that weren't, such as when cornerback Frank Walker spit in the mouth of Pittsburgh punter Mitch Berger in 2008 which Walker called a "slobber moment."

There was the time Ravens defensive back James Trapp jumped up and tap danced with his cleats on the stomach of Burress in 2002.

Even the two former coaches didn't get along. Pittsburgh had "The Chin," Cowher, and the Ravens had "The Mouth," Billick.

During his first three seasons as the Ravens coach, Billick went 3-0 in Pittsburgh. After the third win, he said he liked to playing there, referring to the atmosphere and the intensity of the games.

Cowher took offense, so after he won four on the road against the Ravens, he said in 2002: "I love playing here in Baltimore."

"The first year I was there we beat them, like 16-0, and I said it was the worst Pittsburgh team I ever played against," Sharpe said. "They beat us the second time around and Cowher told people to tell Shannon Sharpe the Steelers are going to be just fine. He loved this stuff."

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and the Ravens' John Harbaugh don't seem to like each other, but that might be more based on competition. Tomlin, though, did put his own stamp on their series a few years ago when he was shown on video shadow boxing in the tunnel before he came onto the field in Pittsburgh, and also when he tried to trip returner Jacoby Jones while running down the sideline in Baltimore.

Fans here booed Tomlin, but it was funny. He got caught red handed, or red footed, on the Jumbotron, and it just added another moment to the rivalry.

But it's not like that anymore. Players have gone silent, and they talk about mundane things like the intensity and physicality of the game. The Ravens know that if they win they can at least be tied for first place in the AFC north with the Steelers.

Oh, ho-hum

We need more pre-game sparring. We need Sharpe again. We need Sam Adams telling the Steelers they better bring a lunch pail for this game, or Troy Polamalu blitzing or making a game-ending interception. I always like the Bettis shuffle after a touchdown or Lewis colliding with him in mid-air on a goal-line stand.

Back then, both teams played great defense.

"I had a defense to back me up," Sharpe said. "Opposing players would ask me why I talked so much because we only scored three points a game. I told them we might only score three points, but that was enough to beat them."

Instead, the biggest drama this week has been if Roethlisberger will play or not because of a knee injury. The other is Suggs talking about how it used to be in this rivalry.

It never used to be this quiet.

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mikepreston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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