Ravens-Steelers III: It's 'Armageddon'

Are you not entertained? The Steelers and Ravens split their two earlier meetings this season. ESPN.com Illustration

PITTSBURGH -- The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is easily the most intense in the NFL.

Baltimore defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs wasted little time after the Ravens defeated the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday to start talking about the hated Steelers. He likened the teams’ third meeting this season Saturday to “Armageddon” and even “World War III” and called the players “modern-day gladiators."

Why, of course.

The Steelers toned down the rhetoric this week, but they’re just as eager for the divisional-round game at Heinz Field.

You know some of the basics -- each team defeated the other on the road this season, Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 20-12 (counting two playoff wins) and the Steelers defeated the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game two years ago in one of the hardest-hitting games I’ve seen.

Here are 10 things you may not know as Ravens-Steelers III looms:

1. Even old ladies despise Ravens

A fan's craft project hangs in the Steelers’ locker room, in between the lockers of offensive tackle Max Starks and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. Made of cotton and knitted with purple and black thread, it has a large “X” through the name “Ray” in the center.

A Steelers fan from Ohio created the piece and sent it to the team along with a lengthy letter explaining how much she despises the Ravens and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

“We thought it was funny because it was an elderly lady, like a grandma, but she had enough guts to knit that together,” Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon said. “That’s a real tribute to her.”

Former Pittsburgh starting center Justin Hartwig saw it, loved it, and put it up on the wall next to his locker. The Ray Lewis quilt has been in the vicinity of the offensive linemen’s lockers for nearly two years, regardless of who the Steelers are playing that week. It serves as a nice little reminder all season of the Ravens’ linebacker.

“That’s been our rival and Ray Lewis is definitely the heart of that team and the heart of that organization,” Colon said. “Any time you want to kill a monster you have to go for the heart.”

2. Ben Roethlisberger ‘hates’ playing the Ravens

You would think that, with an 8-2 career record against Baltimore, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would love playing against the Ravens.

You would be wrong.

“I hate playing these guys because they are so good, especially on defense,” Roethlisberger said.

And they hurt people, especially Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger owns six straight wins over Baltimore, but the wins rarely come without a price. In the last meeting between the teams on Dec. 5, Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose after taking a shot to the face by Ravens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.

The NFL fined Ngata $15,000 for the hit. But Roethlisberger played through the pain and led the Steelers to a come-from-behind win in Baltimore, which helped secure the AFC North division title and a first-round bye.

Roethlisberger did interviews after the game with a crooked nose that a doctor later said looked like “Corn Flakes.” Roethlisberger had surgery to repair it the next day.

“He actually looks better now,” Steelers receiver Hines Ward joked this week. “They broke his nose, but he’s a warrior.”

In 11 games against the Ravens, Roethlisberger has been sacked 38 times, by far the most times he has been sacked by any team in the NFL. In a Week 12 game at Baltimore in 2006, Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high nine times. In the second quarter of that game, then-Ravens linebacker Bart Scott ran around left end untouched and splattered Roethlisberger with a huge hit to the chest.

"That's probably the hardest I've ever been hit in my life," Roethlisberger told reporters afterward.

3. But look out, Ravens

Roethlisberger finished the season strongly, throwing for 600 yards in the final two games. According to Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, he’s playing the best football of his career.

“He’s as good as I’ve ever been around,” Arians said this week. “He just continues to grow.”

During his four-game suspension to start the season, Roethlisberger worked on several parts of his game, including improving his accuracy and throwing motion.

“He’s shortened his delivery a little bit. … It’s kind of like a golfer changing his stroke a little bit. It was minor, but it really gets the ball out of his hands faster,” Arians explained.

The quicker delivery has contributed to Roethlisberger’s reduced sack total. Last season, Roethlisberger was sacked 3.12 times per game. This season, he was sacked 2.66 times per game, almost a half of a sack less per game.

4. A rivalry within the rivalry

There will be a time when stalwarts such as Ward, Lewis, Ed Reed, Aaron Smith and James Farrior won’t be a part of this great rivalry. But one matchup you can expect to see for the next 5 to 10 years involves Ngata, 26, and Steelers rookie center Pouncey, 21.

Both Pro Bowlers, Ngata and Pouncey will play a large role this weekend -- and beyond -- in which team controls the line of scrimmage in this series. Each is a first-round pick, Ngata in 2006 and Pouncey in 2010.

The 6-4, 305-pound Pouncey had a great rookie season, starting all 16 games, but Ngata was easily his stiffest test. In the first two meetings, Ngata was dominant with 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. There’s no shame in that because Ngata -- called “The NFL’s version of the the Incredible Hulk” by Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil -- dominates a lot of players.

“The thing about Pouncey is I think his weakness today is big power guys,” Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said. “His movement skills are so good, and you have to remember few interior offensive linemen come out of school as a junior. So he’s a very young person, and I don’t think his strength and bulk have quite caught up with his frame and athleticism.”

Williamson said that the 6-4, 350-pound Ngata is several years ahead of Pouncey in his development. But Williamson also said that he wouldn’t be surprised if in two or three years Pouncey develops into the NFL’s best center and catches up with Ngata, who may be the best interior lineman in football.

5. Looking for an X factor?

Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin is new to this rivalry, but he’s always been a handful for the Steelers.

Boldin was acquired by Baltimore in an offseason trade with the Arizona Cardinals for key games like this. In four career games against Pittsburgh, Boldin has two 100-yard performances and 28 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns.

In the Super Bowl XLIII loss to the Steelers, Boldin had eight receptions for 84 yards. He caught 12 passes in two games against the Steelers this season.

Of the Steelers, Williamson said, “... quick stuff can be an issue for them,” because of their coverages and blitzes. “Boldin is very smart, and he’s often the hot receiver when opponents blitz. You can move him all over the formation, and he’s especially good in the slot. He’s the type of guy who can give the Steelers problems because he can nickel-and-dime you to death.”

6. Once a Raven? Pffffft!

The Ravens once had a chance to pair 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison with future Hall of Famer Lewis at linebacker. Baltimore signed Harrison to a free-agent contract in 2003. But Baltimore had so much depth at linebacker with players such as Lewis, Peter Boulware, Adalius Thomas, Ed Hartwell and Scott, it cut the undrafted Harrison soon after.

“He was just one of those guys who slowly developed,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “But he’s developed and is obviously a great player. I think he fits [the Steelers’] scheme perfectly.

“We had a number of guys and he was a little bit one-dimensional in terms of what he did at the time. But he’s obviously matured and grown in his game.”

This week, Harrison scoffed at the idea that he was ever a Raven.

“Everybody has a misconception that I was there for a while; I was there for eight days,” Harrison said. “Everything happens for a reason, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. There is a reason I was there, and there’s a reason that I’m here now. … I’m happy.”

7. The Professor says…

ESPN’s John Clayton, who has covered the NFL for more than three decades, has seen his share of bad blood between teams. “The Professor” said he thinks Ravens-Steelers is the NFL’s most heated rivalry, but said it doesn’t measure up to the Raiders-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s.

“The Ravens-Steelers rivalry now is kind of like the Houston Oilers-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s,” Clayton said. “There was truly animosity between the Oilers and Steelers, but there was always that respect. They wouldn’t diss each other much because they knew there might be a punch coming back.” The Steelers beat the Oilers in AFC Championship games in 1978 and 1979.

“The old Steelers’ rivalry with the Raiders was simply brutal, some of the most physical football I have ever seen. Steelers receiver Lynn Swann used to get squashed in a Raiders secondary that included Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. Now, if they allowed defensive backs today to smack receivers all the way down the field the way they allowed them to back then, maybe Steelers-Ravens would approach that level of intensity.”

8. This series is this close

Since 2003, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played each other 17 times and each team has scored 302 points. During that span, Pittsburgh has nine wins, Baltimore eight.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens and Steelers are the most dominant and consistent defenses over the past decade. Since 2000, Baltimore has allowed an NFL-low 2,992 points in the regular season (17 points per game). Pittsburgh is second in that span, allowing 3,011 total points (17.1 ppg). No other NFL teams have allowed fewer than 3,200 points since 2000.

9. Lewis, Ward don’t cross trash-talking line

In an effort to spread the love in this rivalry, we asked Steelers veteran receiver Ward this week to name his favorite Ravens player.

“Ha ha, I don’t have a favorite Raven, to be honest with you,” Ward said.

Not even a little bit, Hines?

“Nah,” Ward responded. “I respect them. They’re great ballplayers, and to say I played against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and those guys, it’s a huge honor because I know what type of competitors they are. But you won’t see me and Ray texting each other before the game wishing him good luck.”

OK, we tried. Ward and Lewis have been in the middle of a lot of confrontations over the years, and they usually involve hitting and trash-talking. Ever wondered what is said between these two Future Hall of Famers?

“I’m not going to talk about his mom, and he’s not going to talk about my mom,” Ward said. “Stuff like that we will keep in perspective, but it’s heated. I’m not out there looking to start anything. But over the course of the game, I’m blocking him or somebody’s blocking him and we’re getting into scuffles where I’m kind of in the middle of things. He’s still Ray Ray. People don’t know him like we know him.”

Lewis, of course, weighed in on the subject of the Steelers and Ward this week.

“Listen, I like pizza. I like a lot of things, and then there’s a lot of things I don’t like,” he told reporters. “It’s OK to use that word, ‘like.’ But it’s always good when you don’t get that other word. And that is, when you don’t respect somebody. [Ward] gives us the same respect that we give them.”

10. Hate to break it to you, but …

This rivalry isn’t all bruises and trash-talking.

Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is friendly with Ravens left tackle Michael Oher, whose life story was told in the hit movie “The Blind Side.” Oher famously was adopted by a Memphis, Tenn., family and became a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2009.

Wallace and Oher both went to the University of Mississippi and instantly hit it off. In three of their four years together in college, Wallace visited Memphis to be with Oher and the Tuohy family for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for Wallace, he wasn’t portrayed in the movie.

“We ate some good food, but I think his mom bought it, though,” Wallace said, laughing. “She may have bought it, but nevertheless, it was still good. We had chicken, mashed potatoes, stuff I wasn‘t really used to eating. Being from New Orleans, I ate gumbo and stuff, but this was different.”

Still best friends, Oher and Wallace communicate regularly and spend time together during the offseason.