PITTSBURGH — — Hines Ward knows he drives Baltimore a little bit batty. Whenever the two teams meet, just seeing his smile can make Ravens fans — and a few players — gnash their teeth.
Ward kind of likes it that way. There is a part of him that wouldn't mind if this Saturday's divisional playoff game between the Ravens and Steelers was being played at M&T Bank Stadium instead of Heinz Field. He's happy to play the role of villain in this heated rivalry.
"Baltimore is the best place to play," Ward told the Sun this week, sitting in front of his locker after practice. "To me, that's the best road game. I've always cherished it my whole career. It's pure hatred. If I make a big hit, or say something, or make a play for my team, it irks the crap out of them. I get so many curse words thrown at me and people flipping the bird at me. But the more the fans hate me, the more I look at is as respect."
There is no doubt Ward has been a something of a catalyst in shaping this rivalry. Ward claimed Ravens linebacker Bart Scott threatened to kill him after a 2007 game, and Ward "got a big laugh out of it."
This year, Ward said he didn't care for the way Ravens coach John Harbaugh shook his hand prior to the first game the two teams played in Pittsburgh, saying it was a "fake handshake" because the coach didn't even look him in the eye. Harbaugh seemed a bit baffled by the accusation, and joked that he needed to work on his pre-game pleasantries. Ward, however, didn't mind getting in another dig this week.
"I try not to take it personal off the field," Ward said. "Before the game, coach Harbaugh is a great coach. And he has a great team. But when that whistle blows, I don't know you. I don't want to know you. After the game, I don't want to go out to eat with you. We'll see you next time we play you guys. Baltimore always does all the talking. We just go about our business."
But is he a dirty player? Ward doesn't really care if that's the perception. He's going to be physical either way. Even if you argue that Ward isn't the receiver he once was in his 13th year — his 59 catches were the fewest he's had since 2000 — it's clear he still knows how to get under his opponents' skin.
"He has that legacy," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "But I don't know of another wide receiver that you'd ask to block Jarret Johnson. He's the best there is at agitating. This is his game. He gets up for these games."
After the Dec. 5 game at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens safety Ed Reed said in an interview with Fox Radio 1370 that he felt Ward tried to drive his helmet into Reed's legs on the first play of the game and intentionally injure him.
"He was trying to hurt me," Reed said. "He was trying to take me out of the game. ... Who is going to fine Hines Ward for coming at me with his head down?"
Comments like Reed's, though, are just proof to Ward that he's doing his job. He says he has a lot of respect for Reed. In fact, it was Ward who did the presentation for Reed on the NFL Network when Reed was named one of the Top 100 Greatest Players.
"Being an offensive player, you want to set the tempo for your team," Ward said. "Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame players. As much as they hate me, I hate them. But at the end of the day, you have to respect them. ... You're just not going to see me and Ray texting each other before games, wishing one another good luck."
Ward has been named to the Pro Bowl four times, and was named 2nd Team All Pro three times, but he said this week that none of those honors mean as much to him as a quote uttered by former Ravens coach Brian Billick: "I hate the S.O.B.," Billick said of Ward, "but I'd love to have him on my team."
"To have respect from an opposing coach like that means far more than any accolade I've ever received," Ward said. "Any player in this game wants to be respected by his peers. That was the best compliment of them all."
Ward had just one catch for 13 yards in the Steelers' 13-10 victory in Baltimore, but he still has fond memories of the game.
"When we won down there, I just had a big old smile from ear to ear," Ward said. "Running off the field, I was telling people about how we were going to win the AFC North, and you can't imagine how many birds I had flipped at me. But that's the rivalry. That's why it's special. Because it's pure hatred, and it gets so heated between their team and our team."
Ward said he loves that the Ravens and Steelers are facing one another for a third time this year, especially because this time the stakes are so high. Whomever loses this game is going to hurt, physically and emotionally, for a long time.
"The loser has to sit with that all off-season," Ward said. "I remember when we played them in the AFC Championship [in 2008], we had swept them that year [in the regular season]. There is no way they thought we could beat them three times. We went in there and we did it, and it sat on their mind the whole off-season. We went and won the Super Bowl knowing we beat Baltimore."
Ward is grinning as he says this. If picturing it makes your blood boil, then Ward feels like he's already done his job.