Ravens, Steelers say rivalry built as much on respect as hatred

Ravens coach John Harbaugh discusses respectful rivalry with Steelers. (Childs Walker/Baltimore Sun video)

NFL fans watched with growing unease Monday night as vicious hits and sobering injuries piled up in the latest chapter of the ugly feud between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.

In a recently bygone time, the football-loving public might have celebrated this as the pinnacle of AFC North warfare. But in this CTE-haunted age, Bengals-Steelers instead reminded many of the brutality that seemingly can’t be eradicated from America’s most popular game.


The Ravens watched this from an intimate vantage, both as the team set to play the Steelers next and as a participant in what used to be known as the sport’s most bruising, contentious rivalry. If Ravens-Steelers is less nasty than Steelers-Bengals, an idea both sides endorsed as they prepared for their Sunday night showdown, then how do we characterize it?

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played against the Ravens for 14 years and has tortured them as much as any single player. He drew a clear distinction between his chief divisional rivals:


“I mentioned this week the difference between this game and Cincinnati’s game is [with] these two teams, us and Baltimore, we’ve battled it out, and as long as I have been here, there is always respect involved with it. You’re going to get hit really hard or you’re going to hit somebody really hard, but you’re going to help them up and say, ‘Man, nice job.’ You’re going to battle it out all game, and at the end, you’re going to shake hands, give the other guy a hug and say, ‘Man, that was a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do it next year.’ ”

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger steps between offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert and Ravens linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil during a game at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger steps between offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert and Ravens linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil during a game at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014. (George Gojkovich / Getty Images)

You’re going to get hit really hard or you’re going to hit somebody really hard, but you’re going to help them up and say, ‘Man, nice job.’

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Similar perspectives emanated from the Baltimore side of the AFC North wall.

“You don’t cross paths without a few things in common,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “You can take a look around the league, and there may be one or two teams that kind of play the way we play. We take a tremendous amount of pride in that, and this game is definitely built on respect, but at the same time, they are who they are and we are who we are.”

Have the Ravens and Steelers simply been at this too long to hate one another? Are they the boxers who’ve clubbed each other enough that they’re now something like friends?


Let’s not go too far.

“If you look at highlight tapes from the past, there have definitely been those types of hits in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said when asked to compare it with Bengals-Steelers.

“Hate! It was hate,” said Ravens receiver Mike Wallace, who has played on both sides. “But it was respect, too. You just hate them because you know how hard it is to beat them, and vice versa.”

Lest we forget, Ravens-Steelers got plenty nasty at times.

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In 2003, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter stormed after the Ravens’ team bus and challenged Ray Lewis to a fight after he felt Baltimore players were mocking him on the sideline. In 2008, Steelers punter Mitch Berger accused Ravens cornerback Frank Walker of spitting in his mouth.

There was the 2009 playoff game in which Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark hit Ravens running back Willis McGahee so hard that he knocked himself woozy and sent McGahee to a local hospital. There was the Thanksgiving contest in which Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed to interfere with a kick return by Jacoby Jones and earned himself a $100,000 fine.

And there were the individual rivalries — Lewis vs. Jerome Bettis, Suggs vs. Roethlisberger, Hines Ward vs. the entire city of Baltimore.

“The coaches hate each other. The players hate each other,” Ward once said. “There’s no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner. But the feeling’s mutual: They don’t like us and we don’t like them. There’s no need to hide it. They know it and we know it.”

Sunday’s game will carry the usual high stakes, with the Steelers looking to clinch the division and the Ravens trying to maintain their hold on an AFC wild-card spot. The Ravens will also look to erase memories of their last trip to Pittsburgh, where their playoff hopes ended on Christmas Day last year.

Players fully expect to leave the game feeling more bruised and battered than they would after an average contest.

“I think this division, just the way that we set our teams up and the weather that we play in and all that stuff, I think we tend to set ourselves up for very physical-type play,” said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who’s played against the Steelers 21 times in 10 seasons.

Just as Roethlisberger has always had to cope with Suggs, Flacco has faced his share of Pittsburgh nemeses.

“Hey, anytime Troy [Polamalu] was over there, you knew that he had an ability to impact the game at any moment,” he said. “Anytime James Harrison — same thing. Not that I was individually going against him, but he was getting after me every single play, and he has the ability to change a game at any second. They still have those players today, and that is what these games are for — to kind of make a name for yourselves and go out there and do those things.”

But it does seem some of the old nastiness is gone.

The Ravens began their Wednesday work with a prayer for Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury in the Bengals game. Suggs and C.J. Mosley noted they’ve developed personal relationships with Shazier over the years.

“I feel for him and his teammates and his family,” Suggs said. “I can’t imagine what they are going through.”

The Steelers beat the Ravens, 26-9, when the teams met Oct. 1 at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens are now the healthier and fresher team.

The sense of mutual appreciation came up over and over as players and coaches ruminated on Ravens-Steelers.

“Like I said, whether it was Jerome [Bettis] and Joey [Porter], it was always just a kind of hatred for the Ravens, and I know they kind of hated us, but it was a respectful hatred,” Roethlisberger said. “You battled it out on the football field, and when the whistle blew and the game was over, it was like, ‘Man, that was physical, that was nasty, but a lot of respect. See you next year.’ ”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh agreed.

“It’s a great rivalry; we love playing in it,” he said. “It’s the most physical game that we play every single year. It’s always tough coming out of the game, from a standpoint of you’re going to have a lot of bumps and bruises and things like that, for sure, when you play the Steelers. I think they feel the same way. We have respect for them, and we’re looking forward to playing.”

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