If the Ravens' rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t the best in the NFL, it’s certainly up there. Two decades of success, memorable games and regular meetings have made it the “No. 1-circled, red-dot game for us,” as Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said Wednesday.
Bill Cowher was there for the early days of the series. It felt like just another game then. But over his 15 years coaching the Steelers, he watched the Ravens arrive in Baltimore, establish a foundation and start to play a lot like he wanted his Pittsburgh teams to play. Before long, every game was a rivalry game.
With the 5-1 Ravens and 6-0 Steelers set to clash at M&T Bank Stadium, The Baltimore Sun spoke Wednesday with Cowher, now an analyst for CBS' “The NFL Today,” about coaching in the rivalry, Sunday’s high-profile quarterback matchup, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue’s impact and more.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you have a particular memory that sticks out from coaching against the Ravens?
I thought it was one of the most intense rivalries in football at the time. I mean, when the [Ravens] moved from Cleveland, we had somewhat of a rivalry with Cleveland, a little bit with the Houston Oilers at the time. But when they went to Baltimore the first couple of years, they weren’t very good. But then, all of a sudden, when they got Ray [Lewis] and Jonathan Ogden and that draft class, and when [coach] Brian Billick came in, from that time on, it became a pretty intense rivalry.
Two teams that kind of mirrored themselves in how they played the game. They were two teams that were going to run the football, and they were going to be defined by their defense. And there was a physicality in that game that was going to be unlike any other. Two teams that respected each other, but there was a genuine dislike for one another. So it was one of those games that you kind of just did one more notch on your chinstrap, because it was going to be that type of game.
When we ask the Ravens' coaches, they try to keep an even keel and say that this is just one more game. That might’ve been the case for you, too. But did a game against the Ravens feel like a bigger deal before you actually took the field?
Oh, it was. Without a question. Matter of fact, I think it got to the point where I would not put the pads on during the week of a Ravens game because I knew that the physicality part was not going to be a problem. If it wasn’t Ray Lewis versus Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca, it was going to be Hines Ward and Ed Reed. It was the game within the game, and the biggest thing was just to be able to control your emotions.
And I think that was the thing: It’s going to be one of those games where [the message] is going to be: “Look at each other. There’ll be a lot of talk.” And the team that could stay focused and control their emotions the best would have the best chance at the end of the game to put themselves in position to win.
Because it was going to be a game that was going to have good play for 60 minutes. There was going to be ebb and flow in the games. There’s going to be emotional highs and lows. And you’ve got to kind of pace yourself and just stay in the moment. But you were going to get challenged, and it was, again, two teams that prided themselves on imposing themselves on teams.
And most teams would crack in the fourth quarter. To me, the fourth quarter became the time where it defines you and your ability to be able to sustain this approach for the whole game. Because [the Ravens] were going to be the biggest challenge of any team we were going to play that year.
One nice wrinkle about this year’s rivalry is that we finally get our first Lamar Jackson-Ben Roethlisberger matchup. What do you think about where this game finds these two teams and these two quarterbacks?
I think we saw last year … Pittsburgh was more of a one-dimensional defensive football team and tried not to turn the football over on offense. But I think right now, what you have is two teams that have identities on both sides of the ball.
I think for Baltimore, getting [Yannick] Ngakoue this week, and with [defensive coordinator Don] “Wink” Martindale, and Calais [Campbell] coming in from the offseason, they’ve kind of upped their game. Patrick Queen, all of a sudden, looks like the next coming of Ray Lewis. So you’re starting to get that feel.
And then, all of a sudden, with Minkah [Fitzpatrick] coming in last week, and Bud Dupree and T.J. [Watt] on the corners, [Stephon] Tuitt’s back … to me, they’re the best two teams in this division. They’re the most balanced teams in this division. These are two teams that are not going to beat themselves on either side of the ball. They both play very good defense, pressure defense, in how they get after the quarterback.
And on the offensive side of the ball, they’re very confident and very secure with who they are, identity-wise. So it’ll be interesting to see. Ben hasn’t played against this Baltimore Ravens defense in over a year, so I’m sure that he’s got this new group of receivers who he’s getting a better feel for along the way. This is a classic matchup right now. It’s Round 1. They’re going to meet again, but this is Round 1 of a heavyweight fight.
John Harbaugh talked Wednesday about how Ben Roethlisberger’s always been a guy who can get the ball out quickly, but the Steelers have really taken that to an extreme this year. What have you seen from this evolution of their offense?
I think it’s evolving. You look at Chase Claypool and what he’s done in the last couple of weeks, and he emerged a couple of weeks ago. Diontae Johnson is really another guy, to me, that has suddenly become a little of a guy who can run after the catch and show some quickness. We know that JuJu Smith-Schuster has always been kind of a guy he can count on. … I think right now, there’s kind of a trio of receivers, not to discount James Washington. And then you go out and get Eric Ebron with Vance McDonald.
It’s probably one of the most balanced offenses that [Roethlisberger] has had, and you couple that with the way James Conner’s playing right now, Benny Snell, they really are a football team that can beat you and they can play any kind of game they need to in terms of running the football or throwing the football. And I think Ben is looking more and more comfortable. Again, it’s been, what, six games that he’s been with these receivers? So he’s still getting a feel for them. This is probably the best defense he’s going to go against at this point. So it becomes a little bit of a defining game for these guys, a challenge for these guys, kind of just to see where they stand.
On the Ravens' side, the offense has two good receivers in Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Mark Andrews. But that depth behind them hasn’t really developed yet. What have you seen from guys like Willie Snead IV, Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay?
Well, I think Duvernay gives you a special weapon in itself. He’s a home run hitter. You put the ball in his hands; he’s got special speed. And I think that’s the one thing in our game you have to respect, is speed. Just like Ray-Ray McCloud, who Pittsburgh tries to use at times for big plays — boy, that can really infuse an offense. So I wouldn’t discount him.
But again, when you look at that offense, it’s centered around Lamar. It’s centered around their ability to run the football with the quartet of running backs that they have. … It’s a very good offense, good offensive line. The running game sets up the play-action game, which is where I feel like Lamar is at his best. …
It depends on what you want to play against him. You play a little bit of zone, then they beat you underneath with some of their receivers. You try to play man-to-man, the fear you have there is Lamar taking off and running with defenders' backs to him. So it’s a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game. It’s a little bit of a chess match.
And I think the one thing, again, that you have to do with Lamar is, you’ve got to able to set the corner. You’ve got to set the edges with him, and I think we all know that you want to keep him in the pocket somewhat in a controlled rush. But again, you’ve still got to get pressure on him as well. So it’s a little bit of a chess match.
We know just how much Don “Wink” Martindale loves to blitz. With Yannick Ngakoue’s arrival, do you think that will change his philosophy? Does it encourage him to rush four pass rushers more often, or is it just going to give him more creativity with how he blitzes and comes after the passer?
I think, without question, it gives him more options. Sometimes, the blitz is — you can live by the blitz, you can die the blitz. I think we saw a little bit of that [in Week 3] in going against the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, I think when you get Ngakoue, there’s a lot of comfort to know, from a coverage standpoint, when you have one of the better secondaries in the league. … These guys can cover.
And if you can get a rush with a four-man rush and have the extra guy in coverage, there’s no question that that’s going to limit the amount of windows that a good quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger can exploit you with. Particularly going against a guy like Ben, going against a guy like Patrick Mahomes, you’ve got to pick and choose. I think it’s one thing going against a young quarterback, but it’s another thing going against someone who’s been in the league like Ben has, where he’s seen it all.
This is going to be hyped as a matchup between Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger, but is there a matchup that should not be overlooked?
Well, I think the one thing that both these teams have — and I don’t know if it’s a matchup — but they probably have the two best kickers in the National Football League. I mean, [Chris] Boswell and [Justin] Tucker, I don’t know if they’ve missed a kick this year. [Editor’s note: Tucker has missed just once, from 61 yards.] …
You’re looking at Patrick Queen going against this offense for the first time, and for a young man, I’ve been so very impressed with his ability to step in and run that defense and make the plays he’s made — not just blitzing, but also running from sideline to sideline.
But again, I think one of the biggest things we’re going to see in the matchup is, is the loss of Devin Bush going to affect the inside of that Pittsburgh Steelers defense? Because we all know one thing: The running game is the forefront of what Baltimore tries to do. Devin Bush was a very seasoned defender right there, so that’s the matchup I’m looking at, is that offensive line versus the defensive front of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because if they can get the running game going, that sets up everything else.
But if they can’t get the running game going, then I think you’re falling back into the hands of Pittsburgh. A lot of great matchups here. Two really good teams that are really balanced, I think, both offensively and defensively. But they’re also two teams very confident in who they are from an identity standpoint.
I guess you never had to coach a Ravens-Steelers game with only a couple of thousand fans in the stadium, which was probably a good thing.
You know what, though? I think you take a Ravens-Steelers game, you put nobody in the stands, there’s going to be a dislike from the time they walk out onto the field and they start stretching and looking at each other. You don’t need any fans to get that riled up. It just takes it to another level. It just amps it up a little bit.
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But these two teams, they respect each other. But trust me, there’s a history, as I’ve always talked to Ray Lewis about. Loved him before the game, loved him after the game, but in the middle of that game, for those 60 minutes, he was a big pain in my neck. I just wanted to find ways to beat him.