You would never know it, but this Sunday two of the N.F.L.’s most bitter rivals are taking the field. Unfortunately since neither team plays in New England or Indianapolis, and since every game is a bloodbath type defensive struggle in the best way, the League or the mainstream media could really give a crap about promoting it like they would for a rivalry like Indianapolis or New England. But you know what? It’s Steelers vs. Ravens in Week 1 and I am stoked for yet another classic game.
I understand that a majority of Steeler Nation despises the Baltimore Ravens and their fans. I also understand that the feeling is mutual vice versa as well. Yet even though I do not like the Ravens by any means, I can at least respect their organization, their fans, and their team because they (like the Steelers) play football the correct way: hard and physical, and have the utmost commitment to winning. If you as a fan prefer the glorified form of grab-ass that the game is evolving into courtesy of his Imperial Majesty and his cronies, that’s just fine and dandy. Just don’t watch any game between the Steelers and Ravens as it may upset you with it’s steel-cage-match nature. So in this article I would like to take the time to discuss my thoughts and feelings on why I feel that this rivalry started in 1996 is the best and most underrated in the game, what sorts of things football fans and the N.F.L. in general can appreciate about the rivalry, and why I feel that both fanbases love it so much.
What to Appreciate:
On the defensive side of the ball, you can’t help but just stare in awe at the talent that has suited up for both teams over the last decade and a half. I mean the list goes on and on for the Ravens with guys like Ngata, Lewis, Suggs, Reed, Boulware, Scott, etc.. And the Steelers, they’ve been fortunate enough to have guys like Smith, Snack, Deebo, Timmons, Farrior, Woodley, Polamalu, etc.. Don’t tell me that either fanbase wouldn’t want guys from either side suiting up for the team that they cheer for either. I curse Terrell Suggs after he plants Big Ben, but don’t tell me Steelers Fans that you wouldn’t want him lining up on the other side of Deebo? I’m sure Ravens fans hate Polamalu’s big plays that have broken Baltimore’s back in years past, but don’t tell me that they wouldn’t want him in their D-Backfield. The talent on both sides is just so freakin awesome!
These guys I’ve listed above as well as those that I didn’t due to space constraints are indicative of the true commitment to stout defensive play that these franchises have prided themselves and the rivalry itself upon for the last decade and a half. The proof is in the pudding, because year in and year out it is always Pittsburgh and Baltimore that are finding themselves at the top or at least in the top 5 of the N.F.L.’s Total Defensive Rankings. These teams lay the proverbial “wood” to their opponents on a week in and week out basis unlike any other team in the League. But when they have to play each other twice a year, watching the Defenses at work is truly a thing of beauty. And it’s funny because each team has had the same thing for almost the past decade: Strong D-Line, Terrific and Athletic LB’s that wreak havoc, and a Ball-Hawking Safety that is liable to score on any play.
Front Office Stability:
Both Front Offices are probably two of the top five best in the N.F.L. as well. Both G.M.’s, Ozzie Newsome and Kevin Colbert have had a knack of building through the draft better than almost any team in the league. Their commitment to success has bred an environment conducive to winning. These teams know that every year they look at the draft board they are trying to find impact players that will someday down the road help to beat one another’s team. And sorry, Cleveland and Cincy., until you have any sort of sustained and non-flukey success you’ll have to sit and watch this two team chess match for the Division Title year in and year out. The success bred from the front office doesn’t lie, because it spreads down to the scouts as well. Let’s simply take a look at some of the 1st Round Draft Picks since 2001 between both teams: Todd Heap, Casey Hampton, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Terrell Suggs, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Haloti Ngata, Sansmokio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Joe Flacco, and Maurkice Pouncey. If that’s not quality I don’t know what is. For the sake of time I won’t break down the awesomeness of both teams’ entire drafts from 2001-2010, but let me just say, it’s no coincidence why these teams win. I mean, with a combined 3 Super Bowl titles under their watch in the 00’s, and 14 playoff appearances from 2000-2010 it’s hard to argue that both of these men and those that work under them are some of the best at their craft.
Probably the most incredible thing about the Steelers and Ravens rivalry and both franchises as a whole, are the amounts of coaches that have been a part of and developed withing these organizations and gone on to bigger and better things in the N.F.L.. In terms of their two most recent Head Coaches, Brian Billick is a Super Bowl champion, and John Harbaugh has led his team to the playoffs in his first three years in the league. In addition to the Head Coaching successes, the Ravens have had a lot of tremendous assistant coaches on their team over the last decade. I mean, it pains me to say it, but look at the talent that was on the Ravens coaching staff during their 2000 Super Bowl season. The Ravens had Jack Del Rio coaching their LB’s, Rex Ryan coaching their D-Linemen with Mike Smith was his assistant. And leading the way they had Marvin Lewis as their Defensive Coordinator (who lest we forget Steeler Nation coached in Pittsburgh from 1992-1995 as the LBs coach). These guys fingerprints and successes are all over the N.F.L.., and all of these guys have taken each of their teams to multiple playoff appearances as Head Coaches.
The Steelers are also by no means a slouch when it comes to hiring and developing coaching talent. Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have both won Super Bowl titles which is something most coaches can’t say they’ve done. On and off for three decades the Steelers have had arguably one of the greatest assistant coaches ever on their sideline in current D.C. Dick “Father Time” LeBeau. Longtime D-Line Coach John Mitchell is argued by his peers to be one of the best in the game and has developed guys like Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Big Snack Hampton into quality players. I’m honestly stoked to see what he ends up doing with Hood and Heyward who could just be lethal with Mitchell’s guidance. Let’s not forget D.C. in waiting Keith Butler who has turned down both Arizona and Miami D.C. jobs to stay in Pittsburgh as the LB’s Coach and take the reins when LeBeau retires. I don’t think I need to go into detail about the quality LB’s that the Steelers have turned out under Butler’s guidance. Ken Wisenhunt coached in both Baltimore and Pittsburgh. He was the TE’s Coach for the Ravens from 1997-1998, then famously made the climb from TE’s Coach to O.C. for the Steelers, and finally earned the Head Coaching job in Arizona (he took H.O.F. player and Steelers’ O-Line Coach Russ Grimm with him) where he took the most moribund of franchises all the way to the Super Bowl. Finally, my favorite Steeler player as a kid Darren Perry earned his bones as a player under LeBeau in the 1990’s, then as a DB coach for a secondary that won Super Bowl XL, and now is the Safeties coach of the Packers that are the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Hard Nosed Physical Classics:
This is probably the most exciting part of the rivalry right here that everybody notices. Every time these teams suit up it’s an instant classic. I’ll break the games I’ll reference below down some more for my Saturday article, but Ravens and Steelers fans are treated to some of the most exciting football games to watch. Sure, the mainstream media and casual fans may not agree that a 20-17 game is sexy or a 13-10 game is filled with as much excitement as a 47-45 shootout. Yet, ask a Ravens or Steelers fan what we most enjoy about these games, and we’ll rattle off just some instant classics from the last three seasons alone: 2008 MNF OT game, 2008 Smokey wins at Goal Line, 2008 Steelers go through Ravens to Super Bowl, 2009 Flacco wins in OT, 2009 Steelers come from behind, 2010 Flacco wins in Pittsburgh, 2010 Isaac Redman is the hero, 2010 Playoff Comeback at Heinz. These are the 8 matchups in the last three seasons alone that have been just bloodbath type games and all ended in the 4th Quarter or O.T. in dramatic fashion. And in all of these games the scoring is low, and the defensive play is stellar. I’d go further back in time to describe more instances of these wonderful hard-fought games, but again like the draft picks, I’ll save that for another article.
So let’s just for a second take a step back from the joy/anger felt at the end of every Ravens vs. Steelers game and recognize what’s important: These are some of the N.F.L.’s best games and we get to have a side to root for in all of them! So what if they’re not sexy offensive shootouts? They aren’t intended to be. When you break down the most members that played on the Defensive side of the ball from 1995-2015 that were inducted into Canton, which teams are going to be #’s 1 and 2 with the most members? Yeah, that’s what I thought, and you know what it’ll probably be the same from 2015-2035 too because each front office will keep mining gold in the draft. The coaches developed by these teams are top notch, and the front offices are some of the best run in the game. Both teams bring out the best, and at times worst in each other, but that is what a rivalry is supposed to do. These franchises and teams are at times mirror images of each other, and while we as fans may not like to admit it, there are at least some feelings of grudging mutual respect there that can shine though from time to time.
It’s not like either side represents the evil in the N.F.L. like the Patriots, the complete douchebaggery like the Cowboys, or the complete idiocy like the Bengals. I say let the jagoff Commissioner and the pundits like Nantz, Simms, King, Simmons, etc. fawn all over the Colts vs. Pats rivalry all they want. If they like a lack of Defensive play during the games, a lack of physicality in almost all instances, and rules that protect only those team’s QB’s so be it. They can have it and they are entitled to their opinions. I just want our fans to focus on the glorious nature of the Steelers vs. Ravens rivalry. We know it’s special and we know how important it is to our fanbases, and even the N.F.L. in general. It is unlike anything going in the game today. So for a short moment let’s come together and enjoy what we have as fans of our teams before they take the field Sunday for what is likely to be another classic and the rivalry takes it up another notch.