OWINGS MILLS — That sneering grin always seems to signal that the joke is at the expense of Hines Ward’s latest fallen opponent.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ rugged wide receiver’s laughter after the play is typically interpreted as a taunting display of superiority.
And Ward’s borderline blocks are legendary for their concussive force, including one crushing shot earlier this season that broke the jaw of Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers.
Ward’s hits are often controversial and labeled as cheap shots. He has a history of sending bigger players like Baltimore Ravens linebacker Bart Scott and free safety Ed Reed flailing through the air.
A good rule of thumb for anyone playing against Ward : Beware of his knack for delivering brutal downfield blocks, and keep your head on a swivel if you want to keep it attached to your shoulders.
Ward relishes being the self-described most hated player for the Ravens and their fans as both teams prepare for Sunday’s AFC title game at Heinz Field.
"But I love Baltimore, why would they dislike me?" Ward sarcastically wondered to Pittsburgh reporters this week. "I love the crab cakes there. It’s a big honor, I guess. I’m just playing football. I don’t know why a whole city would dislike me. Maybe I smile too much and they don’t like that I’m happy all the time.
"For me, I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win a ball game and Baltimore has been our rival for years. There’s just something about Baltimore where you want to get up and give it all you’ve got. And if the city of Baltimore is mad at me for doing that, then I’m sorry to the city of Baltimore."
During the first of two victories over the Ravens this season, Ward managed to draw outside linebacker Jarret Johnson into retaliating and drawing a personal foul for shoving the wideout after the play out of bounds. The 15-yard penalty set up the Steelers for a 38-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.
"He’s a hard, competitive player who hits guys with big shots," Johnson said. "He’s a super-competitive guy. I think guys try to compete back at him, sometimes after the whistle."
Would the Ravens embrace Ward if he wore purple and black? In a New York second.
"Absolutely," Johnson said. "You get a guy that competitive that wants to win that bad, a team is going to love him."
Just not Scott, who issued a death threat on the field to Ward after being blindsided by him on a huge hit during a humiliating 38-7 Monday night loss to the Steelers last season in Pittsburgh.
Scott has repeatedly called Ward’s hits "cowardly" in the past and even made fun of Ward’s heritage several years ago, but was cautious in his remarks about the hard-nosed wide receiver this week.
Scott’s determined to not lose his cool against Ward in such a pivotal game, one step away from the Super Bowl.
"It’s not like he’s a vocal guy, it’s not like he’s in the media taking verbal jabs at you," Scott said. "You just know that he’s going to play tough and he’s going to try to make the game physical, and if he can draw you into a penalty, he will. That’s the nature of him being a crafty veteran.
"No matter what occurs out there, you keep your head, you keep your cool because trying to hurt him, or trying to hurt anybody out there or retaliate, is hurting your team. You don’t want to do that in a big-time game because everything in the playoffs is magnified."
During that 2007 game against the Steelers, Ward ear-holed Reed. The hit was so big that Reed had to be helped off the field. Eventually, Reed congratulated Ward for the force he had generated.
"We can’t get caught up in that part of the game," Reed said when asked about Ward. "We know it’s there, and we’ll handle it as men as the game goes."
In two games against Baltimore this season, Ward has caught 10 passes for 156 yards. That includes a 49-yard reception in a 23-20 overtime loss in Pittsburgh and eight catches for 107 yards in a 13-9 win in Baltimore.
Ward, 32, has 86 career catches and six touchdowns against the Ravens in 11 NFL seasons. All the while, he has embraced the ask no quarter, give no quarter aspect of the rivalry.
"Me and Ray Lewis won’t go out and eat together after the games," Ward said. "You can count on that. It’s going to be an all-out war. There’s no helping each other up.
"There’s going to be a lot of trash-talking on the field. At the end of the day, it’s still respect. They have some great players."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.