CINCINNATI -- Ryan Clark has played in the NFL for a long time; 12 seasons, to be exact.
That means the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback has seen his share of physical play, and he's heard his share of brash, rivalry-induced smack-talk. After all, not only has he played in the rough and rugged AFC North, but he also spent his early years playing for a pair of NFC teams (Washington and New York) that have a long-standing tradition of hatred for one another.
So it's safe to say Clark knows rivalries.
Still, on a teleconference Wednesday, he said something interesting about the rivalry game he will be involved in Sunday night in Pittsburgh. While speaking with media who cover the Cincinnati Bengals, he implied that the mostly young Bengals team has been chirping adverse things about his team in recent months and years. He implied that the division-leading Bengals, filled with veterans who started elsewhere and fresh-faced players who have been groomed by the franchise within the last four or five seasons, don't know anything about the Steelers-Bengals rivalry, and that they couldn't care less about it.
"I don't think there's a lot of respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cincinnati," Clark said. "I don't think they necessarily understand the history, or know the history, nor care about it."
That's not the impression second-year Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict seemed to leave when he spoke with reporters earlier in the day.
"When we played them the first game, we realized they are a physical team," Burfict said, referring to a Monday night meeting back in Week 2. "Even when I played them my rookie year, I knew it would be a physical division; especially at linebacker since you have to go up against some big offensive linemen. They can barely move, but they can hit."
Now, for a little context.
Clark was asked on the teleconference to generally describe his thoughts on the Bengals-Steelers rivalry. He began by citing how competitive the series was throughout the previous decade when Carson Palmer was behind center for the Bengals and Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were catching passes from him. Even though Pittsburgh was 13-6 in the rivalry between 2001-09, several of those contests were quite competitive, Clark pointed out.
Then came the 2010-11 era, when the Steelers really dominated, Clark continued. "We were beating the Bengals pretty regularly."
Pittsburgh won all four meetings those two seasons.
But since last year's split of the two regular-season games, Clark has detected something different about the Bengals. It's not a bad thing, just different, he said.
"Those guys play hard," Clark said. "They talk. And for me, that's exciting. It's always good to play against good players who feel like they're better than you. It makes for a good game for both teams."
Perhaps the Bengals' feelings of superiority are expressed internally when no one else is looking. Because publicly, they are putting on a much different face. It's one that reeks of respect for the Steelers.
Here's Bengals safety Reggie Nelson on the rare 5-8 record Pittsburgh is bringing into this late-season game: "They've always been good to me, to be honest with you. You can see it on film. They've got a great group of athletes over there; a great group of guys. They just had a rough start. But we've got to just come out and play. Their record don't speak for nothing."
Eight-year Bengals vet Andrew Whitworth, who played at LSU just after Clark, also sounded respectful when describing the Bengals' preparations for Sunday.
"It's going to be a heck of a game," Whitworth said. "We're preparing to get the best they've got."
Maybe the Bengals are just saying the right things publicly.
As for Clark's take on the rivalry, no matter how much disrespect he may feel off the field, he still knows his team has to be well prepared on it.
"Right now, they're clicking," Clark said. "They're going to be tough to stop. We'll have our work cut out for us."