Rivalry reboot: Ravens face Steelers with fewer familiar faces, less hatred and scant national buzz

Leave it to an old-school Raven to come up with the best quote of the week on the team’s unrelenting rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“We hate each other,” Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “That's just how it is. That's the blood between the teams. It's like God versus the Devil. I don't know, but it's just the taste [of it]. We respect them as men, but as a team, as an organization, me personally, I don't really care too much for them.”


Same as it ever was.

And yet McPhee, who hasn’t played in the rivalry since 2014, could be forgiven for not recognizing the state of relations between the AFC North foes.


Yes, John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin are still the head coaches, as they have been since 2008 and 2007, respectively. And yes, the Ravens and Steelers finished one-two in the division last year, as they have six times during the Harbaugh-Tomlin era.

But Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh will kick off without a wide array of characters who gave the rivalry its face over the past decade. No Terrell Suggs barking insults or Joe Flacco lofting passes through the dreary sky over Heinz Field. No Ben Roethlisberger wriggling free from pressure like a zombie quarterback or Antonio Brown reaching across the goal line to crush the Ravens’ hopes.

“When you bring that to my attention, yeah, it’s going to be different,” said Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, who will play his 24th career game against the Steelers. “Without the guys who’ve been at quarterback and ‘Sizz,’ who’s been there for over 10 years straight, it’s going to be different for sure.

“But when it comes down to it Sunday, you’re not worried about that. It’s part of the NFL. Guys come and go. Guys get injured. When I think about it, it’s really a credit to those guys, who were able to stick at a high level for a really long time.”


With so many past antagonists retired or relocated, Ravens vs. Steelers does not feel quite as mean. McPhee’s comments would not have sounded unusual seven or eight years ago, but newer stars for both teams approach the rivalry with a more respectful (or to put it bluntly, blander) tone.

“This is our biggest rival,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “Being a Raven, this game is a lot of excitement.”

Not exactly Hines Ward accusing the Baltimore defense of placing a bounty on his head or Joey Porter screaming at Ray Lewis outside the Ravens’ team bus.

These are two teams trying to find themselves as they play for the first time in 2019. The Steelers hope to overcome a 1-3 start with second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph filling in for the injured Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, the Ravens have fallen to an uncharacteristic 27th in the league in total defense, grasping for answers on a side of the ball where they’ve traditionally dominated. A loss would force either team to the edge of a gloomy precipice.

Not to mention, the rivalry seems to have lost some of its standing on the national stage. For the first time since 2006, neither Ravens-Steelers game is scheduled for a prime-time broadcast. The last time this matchup generated so little buzz outside Baltimore and Pittsburgh was two days after Christmas 2015, when the Ryan Mallett-led Ravens knocked the Steelers from AFC North contention.

All of that said, it’s still accepted fact at the Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills that Steelers week carries extra weight. For a team trying to move on from a humiliating 40-25 thrashing at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, the built-in intensity is welcome.

“There is nothing better, after a game like that, than to play this historic rivalry — I think the best rivalry in sports — this week,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “We know how we feel about them, how they feel about us. The greatest thing I think that makes this rivalry stand out, compared to others, is the respect both organizations have for each other.

“It’s going to be a little bit different; there’s not the same players that have been here in the past, obviously. But the rivalry is the rivalry.”

Harbaugh couldn’t quite believe it when told this would be his 26th go-round with the black and gold. “It’s been that many?” he said. “There was a time when they were saying it wasn’t a rivalry, as I recall. Some of my favorite players, guys like Ryan Clark and some of those guys, would say, ‘It’s not a rivalry until you beat them.’ We beat them the second year [in 2009]. So, it’s a rivalry. I’ve always felt that way.”

Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon didn’t go full Suggs in describing what the Steelers matchup means to him, but he confirmed Martindale’s and Harbaugh’s assessments of its importance.

“I just want to make sure I’m on my Ps and Qs,” he said. “Because this game will make you as a Raven. You can’t let it break you.”

Quarterback Lamar Jackson will make his first career start against the Steelers. He only took over the job last year after Flacco suffered a hip injury on a hit from Pittsburgh defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt in Week 9.

Does the run-pass sensation fancy writing a few new chapters of Ravens-Steelers lore?

“I haven’t looked at it like that, but since you said it, yeah, it’s going to be pretty crazy,” Jackson said. “No Ben [Roethlisberger], a whole new team, a new era.”

He laughed when asked his memories of riding to inhospitable Heinz Field on the team bus last season.

“It wasn’t the bus ride,” Jackson said. “It was actually, for me, just being on the sideline and watching it. They play that little song, and they wave their little flags and stuff, with the little towels around. It was pretty dope. I enjoyed it.”

A positive spin for a less hate-filled era of Baltimore-Pittsburgh football.

But is it possible we really are facing a full changing of the guard in the AFC North, with both traditional heavyweights chasing the suddenly glamorous Browns?

The combatants aren’t buying that storyline.

“On the defensive side, they’re still the Ravens,” Tomlin said at his weekly news conference, unmoved by the fact his rival has allowed at least 500 yards of offense each of the past two weeks.

Two hundred and fifty miles to the southeast, Yanda was not about to undersell a team with 10 first-round draft picks on its defense, no matter what the standings say. To him, the Steelers are still the Steelers.

“People are still finding their way, figuring out their team,” he said. “But they’re still up there in my mind. Whatever, they’re 1-3, but we’re early enough where that’s not a real indicator. They have a great defense. They’re still going to be in every single ballgame.”

So yes, the Ravens-Steelers rivalry has entered an age of fresh faces, fewer barbs and 1 p.m. start times. But it’s still one of the few elemental grudge matches on the NFL calendar.

Or, as Martindale put it: “They know we’re coming.”




Sunday, 1 p.m.

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