Baltimore Ravens

Ravens vs. Steelers isn’t as bitter as it used to be, but veterans know ‘it’s going to be a brawl’

Don “Wink” Martindale did not waste his breath, trying to pretend the Ravens’ impending trip to Pittsburgh was a routine bit of NFL business.

The team’s defensive coordinator cherishes the crackling atmosphere at Heinz Field so much that he told linebacker Tyus Bowser he’d play there twice a year if he could. Facing the Steelers is an elixir for Martindale’s 58-year-old bones.


“The young ones will find out about it,” he said. “I told them that, ‘If you want to be known in this city, play well against Pittsburgh.’”

Every game looms large for the Ravens as they enter the last six weeks of this season, clinging to the AFC’s No. 1 seed and to their perch atop the AFC North. But seasoned members of the organization say Steelers week remains a thing apart, even if the games are not as bitter as they once were.


Ravens-Steelers remains one of the NFL’s most evocative rivalries, shorthand for brash, punishing football played between perennial contenders. Since the AFC North was created in 2002, the teams have combined to win 15 of 19 division titles. Only once in those 19 seasons — hello, 2013, when both went 8-8 — did neither make the playoffs.

Every year, veteran Ravens are asked what they will tell young teammates about the nature of facing the Steelers. Every year, the answers hit familiar notes.

“I would tell them, ‘It’s going to be a brawl,’” said Bowser, who doubtless heard the same thing when he was a rookie in 2017.

At the same time, it’s fair to wonder if the rivalry has exited its heyday. Imagine a Steeler stalking the Ravens team bus in search of a fight, as Joey Porter did in 2003, when he wanted a piece of Ray Lewis. Imagine a person from either team saying, “The coaches hate each other. The players hate each other,” as Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward did once upon a time.

Such vitriol, bordering on insanity, feels like a relic of Ravens-Steelers past. Most of the players associated with the blood feud have retired. Those who remain, such as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, are in their twilight.

The teams have not played in prime time since the 2018 season. Their last meeting — at an empty Heinz Field on a Wednesday afternoon with 16 Ravens on the reserve/COVID-19 list — stood out as a bizarre representation of the NFL’s pandemic era more than a classic chapter in the rivalry.

With the Cincinnati Bengals on the rise and the Cleveland Browns featuring some of the best front-line talent in the AFC, there’s no guarantee the Ravens and Steelers will maintain their hold on the top of the division. At 5-5-1, with two losses and a tie against the winless Detroit Lions over their last three games, the Steelers could be headed for a reset as they contemplate life after the 39-year-old Roethlisberger. The Ravens opened the week as 3½-point favorites, the first time they have ever been favored in Pittsburgh when facing Roethlisberger at quarterback.

Are we headed for a day when the Steelers will be just another divisional opponent for the Ravens?


Not so fast, say the parties involved.

“It’s just a different swagger this week, a different wave we’re trying to ride,” said Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, who has won six and lost six in his regular-season career against the Steelers.

He recalled how renowned Roethlisberger tormentor Terrell Suggs advised him that “this game will pretty much prove if you’re a Raven or not.”

Fullback Patrick Ricard grinned, recalling how Pittsburgh fans have cussed out his wife in the stands. “The rivalry is real; it’s not just a normal NFL game,” he said. “It’s always the most physical game of the year.”

“If you’re a football fan, you have to know about it,” Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh reporters.

Ravens players sounded downright eager to get back to a packed Heinz Field after their strange, COVID-derailed visit in 2020.


“I know it’s going to be loud, loud as ever,” said quarterback Lamar Jackson, who did not play in Pittsburgh last season. “I know some of our fans are going to be there, too. I know ‘Flock Nation’ is going to be at Heinz Field, but I just can’t wait to hear the noise, hear the atmosphere, smell it, feel it, all of that.”

“Probably the best in the NFL, besides us,” Bowser said when asked about Steelers fans. “But I enjoy playing in Pittsburgh. Coach ‘Wink’ mentioned earlier [that] if he was able to play two games in Pittsburgh, he would, and I definitely believed him. The first time I went out there, in my first year in the league, it was just a crazy energy like no other, and just being out there gives you that different type of energy.”

After six years on the Steelers side of the rivalry, Alejandro Villanueva will return to his former home stadium wearing unfamiliar colors. The soft-spoken left tackle is never one to oversell the emotions of a matchup, and he offered a unique perspective on Ravens-Steelers.

“I come from a country where there’s a true rivalry between two giants, in Real Madrid and Barcelona,” said the son of two Spanish parents. “That’s a rivalry that’s tearing the country apart. This is just two good teams that happen to play each other twice a year, usually in the cold, from working towns.”

He drew laughs when he added, “Unfortunately, I cannot provide any further hype to the rivalry.”

Nonetheless, he noted how unusual it is for two NFL teams to meet so frequently without changing their leaders on the sideline. Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh rank third and fourth, respectively, on the list of longest-tenured NFL coaches. These guys have seen each other more frequently than a lot of us have seen close family members over the last 13 years.


“It’s been an amazing experience for me to watch the two cultures,” Villanueva said. “Obviously, I’ve spent a lot more time with coach Tomlin. He’s like a father figure to me. I miss speaking like him, because I used to listen to him talk all the time, and he’s an amazing speaker, and I would talk to my kids and sound just like coach Tomlin. But now, it’s really interesting to see coach Harbaugh, and how he’s countered the Steelers and that culture to remain a very good team in the AFC and in the AFC North.”

If the rivalry is now defined by decorated middle-aged coaches rather than on-field provocateurs such as Lewis and Ward, perhaps that explains why the temperature has cooled.

“We have a great relationship,” Harbaugh said. “I have a lot of respect for coach Tomlin and for the whole organization over there.”

No one in Pittsburgh is likely to slap that on a bulletin board.

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For his part, Tomlin said he has been involved in too many furious, nerve-jangling meetings with the Ravens to take the matchup for granted. The Steelers won both meetings last season, by a combined nine points.

“I just think how the games unfold and the significance of the games over the years make it what it is and has been,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think that that is reduced at all by what’s going on around us. I think it’s about the positioning of the two teams involved, what they’re willing to do in pursuit of victory, the intensity of the games and just how close the games have been over the years.”


Week 13


Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: Ravens by 4 ½