Ravens-Steelers has taken on a new face, but rivalry remains fierce

Stakes are still high despite new names and changing styles on both sides

November 17, 2012|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Most of the characteristics that have defined what many consider the best rivalry in football remain unchanged. Make no mistake, the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers still don't like each other.

The disdain is well-earned from years of hard hits, tough talk and frantic finishes, from two teams with similar mentalities clashing at least twice a year with the realization that the winner will have the inside track on the division title.

When the Ravens and Steelers meet again Sunday night at Heinz Field, the stakes will be high, as they seemingly always are. But some of the faces of the rivalry, from Ray Lewis' intimidating scowl to Hines Ward's mischievous grin to Ben Roethlisberger's steely gaze, will be missing. And two teams that have long prided themselves on grinding it out on offense and dominating on defense will show just how much they've evolved.

"Jerome Bettis isn't running the football. You don't have Jamal Lewis looking for 2,000 yards. I think both teams have kind of grown and made the transition into the modern day state of football which is more offense," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now an analyst for CBS. "I think they both still play very good defense. It's just not up to the standards that people remembered. Both teams rely on their offenses to put points up. That's certainly what Baltimore is doing."

Heading into a potentially season-defining stretch in which they'll play their archrival twice in a three-week span, the Ravens are 7-2, one game better than the Steelers (6-3). The Ravens have the second-best record in the AFC, mostly because of their Joe Flacco-led offense, not their defense, which has uncharacteristically allowed more yards per game than all but five NFL teams.

The Steelers have relied on the NFL's top-ranked defense, which hasn't been flashy but has given up very little ground, and the play of Roethlisberger. But that formula may have to change after the quarterback, who has long tormented the Ravens, hurt his throwing shoulder and ribs last week and could be out for an extended period. Veteran journeyman Byron Leftwich will make his first start Sunday since 2009.

"It's going to have a little bit of a different feel," said Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. "There is no [Ward], no [Troy Polamalu], no [Lewis], no [Lardarius Webb]. But once that whistle blows and the bullets become live, I don't expect anything less than traditional Ravens-Steelers. It's a good old-fashioned alley fight. … As soon as we walk in their stadium, they're going to lock the gates, but that's what we want so we can get in there and we can have it out."

Suggs, the loquacious linebacker who has embraced his role as a villain in the eyes of Steelers' fans, was mostly mum this week, declining to add to the back-and-forth rhetoric between the teams that has been every bit a part of this rivalry as punishing hits.

In fact, there was far more talk in the week leading up to the game about who wasn't going to play than who was, and that shouldn't be the case, says former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who will do color commentary for the NBC primetime broadcast. Collinsworth said the rivalry — he considers it the NFL's best and doesn't even know what he'd rank second — goes beyond the individual players involved.

"Fans would probably make the worst [general managers] in the league because by the time they learn somebody's name on defense, that guy is probably already past his prime. I hate to say it, but that's the reality. There is a new generation of really good players coming through in this rivalry," said Collinsworth, specifically mentioning Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons and safety Ryan Clark, and Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh also downplayed the number of injuries, saying, "There will be 11 great players out there. … It's one of those games that will be played very well. It will be played very efficiently. It will be a rough, tough game — like they are. That's how they're all played."

Still, the attention has been on the fact that Roethlisberger and Polamalu, a safety who has made many momentum-shifting plays in the rivalry, are both sidelined with injuries, as is the Steelers' No. 2 wide receiver, Antonio Brown.

Ward, the gritty wide receiver who took great joy in punishing the Ravens with clutch catches and thunderous blocks, has retired. Ray Lewis, the Ravens' long-time defensive leader, remains out after having surgery to repair a torn triceps.

The defense Lewis left behind bears very little resemblance to the intimidating group that was long considered one of the NFL's best.

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