The two faces of what is still one of the NFL’s best rivalries are approaching the eventual end of their prolific careers in far different manners.
Before returning for a 14th professional season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger openly flirted with retirement and he’s since made no guarantees that he’ll play beyond this year. Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is nearing the end of his 15th season and is dismissive of any mention that this could be his last.
When he does call it quits, Suggs acknowledges, some of his best memories will have come from Ravens-Steelers matchups.
“You have to understand that [when] I was drafted … this was my first game ever,” Suggs said of his 2003 NFL regular-season debut. “It is something you never forget — your first game. You never forget your greatest foe. What would [Michael] Jordan be without the Pistons and the Knicks? Ali and Frazier? … Sports is built on great rivalries like this. It brings the best out of you, so that is why I love this game so much.”
One of the reasons I have so much respect for him ... is on the field, when we do talk, it is usually respectful things. I do not hear trash talk from him.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs
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Asked whether Roethlisberger has been his greatest foe, Suggs flashed a wide smile and said: “That would be a really good argument. … Everything surrounds this game. Both teams are in the hunt and are trying to accomplish things. That is why these games are so meaningful, so definitely.”
When the Ravens face the Steelers on Sunday night in front of a packed house at Heinz Field and a prime-time national television audience, the two titans for the respective franchises will match up again and it’s not out of the question that this will be the final time.
Suggs will reprise his role of the villain in the eyes of the Pittsburgh faithful and renew his 14-year pursuit of Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger said Wednesday on a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters that his battles with the Ravens would always occupy “a special spot in my heart.”
“ ‘Sizz’ will talk about Ben all day, but at the end of the day, I know he respects him and vice versa,” said Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace, who caught passes from Roethlisberger for the first four years of his pro career. “ ‘Sizz’ bleeds purple, Ben bleeds gold and black, whatever color they wear. For those teams, those guys are ‘those players.’ ‘Sizz’ is a Raven. Ben is a Steeler. It is so deep — the rivalry for those guys — they bleed those colors. It is bigger for them, obviously, than anyone else.”
As usual, when the teams meet, there is something on the line. Winners of seven straight games, the Steelers (10-2) could clinch another AFC North title with a win Sunday. If the Ravens (7-5) win, they would take a significant step toward a wild-card berth and serve notice that they’re legitimate threats in the top-heavy AFC.
Roethlisberger has faced the Ravens 23 previous times in his career, including in three playoff matchups, and the Steelers are 13-10 in those games. His 391 completions, 4,665 passing yards, 32 touchdown passes and 35 plays of 25-plus yards are all tops among NFL quarterbacks in regular-season games against the Ravens.
Suggs has been part of 29 Ravens-Steelers games and been on the winning side for 14 of them. He has sacked Roethlisberger 16½ times in his career, the most any NFL defender has dropped the burly quarterback. Suggs also has three career interceptions and four forced fumbles against Pittsburgh.
“That’s his whole M.O. That’s what Sizzle is about,” Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “If you just put his whole career — when he’s not playing — and just put every game that he played against the Steelers and put that highlight up, that sums up his career, the way that he played. That’s how he made his name. He always says that when you get drafted or when you get brought here to the Ravens, you come here to beat the Steelers.”
Suggs, 35, loves movies and owns an independent film company called “Team Sizzle Productions.” He has a particular fondness for superhero flicks. When it comes to Ravens-Steelers, Suggs and Roethlisberger have endured as the two foils.
“I don’t want this to be the face of the rivalry,” Suggs joked. “I guess it kind of describes it — nasty. It is flattering. We still have to go out there and play the game. We still have to do what we have to do.”
Many of the players who built the rivalry have long moved on. Steelers pass rusher Joey Porter, who once tried to get on the Ravens team bus after a game to confront Ray Lewis, last played in the rivalry in 2006, a year after battering ram Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis retired as a Steeler. The Steeler who Ravens fans loved to loathe, wide receiver Hines Ward, retired after 2011, and safety Troy Polamalu, who broke the Ravens’ hearts on numerous occasions, was done after 2014.
Running back Jamal Lewis, the Ravens’ answer to Bettis, faced the Steelers for the final time as a Raven in 2006. Lewis last matched wits with Roethlisberger in 2011 because he missed both games during the 2012 season with an injury. Safety Ed Reed played in his final Ravens-Steelers games in 2012.
After all these years, Roethlisberger and Suggs are still around, and both are playing at an extremely high level. After a slow start this season, Roethlisberger has thrown 10 touchdown passes over his past four games and ranks fifth in the league in passing yards. Playing on two surgically repaired Achilles tendons, Suggs is sixth in the league with 10½ sacks and is on pace for his most productive season since 2011.
Suggs, however, has gone seven straight games without bringing down Roethlisberger, his last sack against him coming in October 2013.
“He is a freak,” Roethlisberger said of Suggs. “He is one of the best I have ever played against. I have a lot of respect for him. I’m sure if he has not already talked to the media he will throw some good one-liners at me. It is a lot of respect, and he is playing at a really high level. He does not show any signs of slowing down. I wish he would, though.”
Suggs isn’t one to heap praise on quarterbacks. He still won’t even call New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady by his name, choosing instead to identify him as “that quarterback up north.” However, he’s voiced his respect for Roethlisberger on numerous occasions and spoken of how much he relishes competing against the likely Hall of Fame quarterback.
That doesn’t mean Roethlisberger is exempt from Suggs’ playful barbs. In a television interview after he sacked Roethlisberger three times in the Ravens’ 35-7 victory in September 2011, Suggs said: “Big Ben, he’s a great quarterback. God can have his soul, but his [butt] belongs to me.”
Before the Ravens and Steelers met earlier this season, Roethlisberger had indicated that his play was holding the Pittsburgh offense back. Suggs responded by calling Roethlisberger a “rat bastard” and accusing him of trying to set the Ravens up.
“Tell Ben I’m on to his tricks,” Suggs said. “I know what he’s doing. I’m not going to let him fool me with trickery and Jedi mind tricks.”
Roethlisberger seems to get a kick out of Suggs’ comments and appreciates how the linebacker goes about his business on the field.
“One of the reasons I have so much respect for him — and I assume it is mutual — is on the field, when we do talk, it is usually respectful things,” Roethlisberger said. “I do not hear trash talk from him. There may be some stuff where [he says], ‘I almost had you’ or, ‘I got you.’ Things like that, but never in a negative way. There is a lot of mutual respect there.”
Both players’ futures beyond this year are a bit unclear. Roethlisberger, 35, has been noncommittal and has talked openly about staying healthy, embracing his post-playing career and spending time with his family. Suggs has one more year left on a contract that pays him a base salary of $4 million in 2018 and carries a $6.95 million salary cap hit.
There’s been some speculation that the Ravens, who have taken three outside linebackers in the past two drafts, could decide to move on from Suggs this offseason, though that appears unlikely given his current level of play.
This week, though, was not the time for either player to address his future. It’s Ravens-Steelers after all, and for the two current players who define the rivalry, that’s all-consuming.