Friday, October 23, 2020

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High stakes return for Ravens-Steelers, even if same bite hasn't

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

The infamous lyrics are piped through the speakers as the Ravens offense huddles up for its next play.
Oh, Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law… 
Only it’s not a critical fourth-quarter moment against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field as the Styx song is instead sounding as the Ravens go through a Wednesday practice in Owings Mills. A number of Ravens players have admitted over the last couple years to liking “Renegade” as the Steelers’ anthem has become a fixture on the playlist used at practices in Owings Mills.
It’s a sentiment that was unlikely to be uttered by Ravens players a decade ago, but perhaps it speaks to the way the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry has evolved in recent years. Sunday marks the 41st overall meeting between these AFC North foes with the stakes as high as they can be in early November with the Ravens and Steelers right on the heels of first-place Cincinnati.
But you can’t help but feel something has been lacking from Ravens-Steelers recently. The games have remained close with the Ravens’ 26-6 win over Pittsburgh earlier this season being the only one of the last five to be decided by more than three points, but the same bite hasn’t quite been there.
A rivalry in which the pre-game trash talk and bulletin-board material once rivaled the car-crash play on the field from an entertainment standpoint no longer fills reporters’ notebooks in the same way as even the once-brash Terrell Suggs has been more subdued in recent years. Former players and coaches such as Ray Lewis, Hines Ward, and Bill Cowher have provided the only inflammatory commentary in recent weeks by labeling Pittsburgh “soft” on defense, but you rarely hear such critiques from either side anymore as most vocal disdain has been replaced by mutual respect, which isn’t a bad thing, mind you.
The truth is these teams are different than the longstanding idea of the Ravens-Steelers mystique that fetches words such as bloodshed and old-school football.
On top of the departure of a number of outspoken figureheads including Lewis, Ward, Ed Reed, and LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and last year marked the first time since 2002 that these teams played a game in which both entered with sub-.500 records. After Pittsburgh and Baltimore were near the top of every defensive category for more than a decade, both teams now lean more on offense — the Ravens do rank second in points allowed this year — with defenses in transition and possessing vulnerabilities.
By no means is the rivalry dead — far from it — but the narrative that once centered around two soul-crushing defenses now focuses on quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. And we’ll see if Sunday’s higher stakes pump new life into a Ravens-Steelers rivalry that’s seen more bizarre — journeyman quarterback Charlie Batch beating Baltimore in 2012 and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin interfering with Jacoby Jones’ sideline return last Thanksgiving night — than instant classic over the last couple years.
It’s an opportunity for new names to be made in the same way that wide receiver Torrey Smith entered his into Baltimore-Pittsburgh lore three years ago in catching the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of a Sunday night game at Heinz Field. That 2011 win was the difference in the Ravens clinching the AFC North title and a first-round bye and the Steelers losing a first-round game at Denver as both teams finished 12-4 with Baltimore’s season sweep being the tiebreaker.
After more than a decade of fighting high-stakes wars and spewing venom at one another, the annual meetings may not be the hottest thing going in the NFL anymore, but Ravens-Steelers has become a legacy rivalry, which is a tribute to how long these teams have beaten the hell out of each other. Many of the Ravens’ youngest players were only in elementary school when the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry first took off at the start of the new millennium, which is difficult to believe for a franchise still less than two decades old.
It may lack the history of Packers-Bears or Cowboys-Redskins, but the rivalry isn’t going anywhere with at least two games guaranteed every year and each fan base holding more disdain for the other than even the teams do. And young players on each side want to make their own mark after watching from afar and listening to veteran teammates talk about the battles of yesteryear in Pittsburgh.
“These guys all know it. They’ve watched it. They’ve grown up with it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “C.J. Mosley and I were talking, and he said he has been watching Ravens-Steelers since he was a little kid. For him, that’s about as long as the Ravens have been around. That goes to show you his whole life has been Ravens-Steelers.
“People talk about us being a young franchise, but for that generation we’ve been around for as long as any other franchise. This rivalry dates back for those guys that play for us that are young.”
Even if the rivalry has changed, the NFL still sees it as a major attraction with both Ravens-Steelers games landing in prime-time slots this season and at least one annual game being a nationally-televised affair since 2007.
The high stakes are back on Sunday with each team sporting a 5-3 record.
It will be fun to see what they have in store for one another.
And you know the Ravens won’t blink when they hear those familiar lyrics sound through the Heinz Field speakers at some point in the fourth quarter.

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