PITTSBURGH– The bullies are about to clash today.
Intimidation tactics, brutal hits that render players unconscious, death threats, taunting, spitting, confrontations outside the team bus and alleged bounties have defined the Baltimore Ravens’ blood rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Today’s pivotal AFC North showdown between the Ravens (2-1) and the undefeated Steelers (3-0) is headlined by dueling defensive powerhouses both determined to be recognized as the kings of pain.
"We don’t like these guys," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We respect them, but we don’t like them. Maybe because the teams are similar, especially in style of play. And it’s just for bragging rights."
The Ravens feature the top defense in the league in terms of fewest yards allowed, surrendering an average of only 244.3 yards per contest.
And the Steelers have allowed the fewest points in the league, giving up an average of only 11.0 points per game.
Since 2000, the Steelers have allowed the fewest yards per game, an average of 280.5 just ahead of the Ravens’ 283.6 average. The Ravens have allowed the fewest points, a 17.0 average to the Steelers’ 17.3.
There’s definitely a lot of pride at stake when these two bands of tough guys collide.
Hard-hitting Steelers safety Ryan Clark caused Baltimore running back Willis McGahee to be carried off the field on a stretcher two years ago in the AFC title game when he knocked him out with a devastating tackle.
Now, Clark is throwing down the gauntlet.
"To me, the Ravens are just another football team," Clark said. "They don’t come in here wearing a cape. I am not scared they are going to take my lunch money."
Clark’s bravado is based on facts.
The Ravens are suddenly looking vulnerable against the run.
They were repeatedly gashed by bruising Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis a week ago as he rumbled for 144 rushing yards and a touchdown.
They’re allowing 127.7 rushing yards per game and are ranked 23rd in the league against the run.
"If we come out and play against the run like we did last week, we’re going to get our asses handed to us," Suggs said. "It’s going to be a little more attention to detail. That’s definitely No. 1 on our list this week."
The Steelers own the kind of smash-mouth running game that grabs the Ravens’ attention.
At 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall isn’t as big as Hillis. He’s faster, and is powerful in his own right, though.
Mendenhall ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing with 332 yards, averaging over five yards per carry. His 50-yard touchdown run won the game for the Steelers in overtime against the Atlanta Falcons to open the season.
"Pittsburgh’s been looking for that back since they lost ‘The Bus’ years ago," said Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis in a reference to Jerome Bettis. "He’s a complete back now, and they’re really getting him involved in that package."
Against the Browns, the Ravens allowed Hillis to average 6.5 yards per carry. He also ripped off a 48-yard run.
"Obviously, those numbers aren’t acceptable," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "Usually when a team does gain some yardage, there are missed tackles involved and we’ve addressed that. He ran very hard against us."
There were breakdowns in open-field tackling against the Browns. Some of it was fundamental mistakes. Other problems could be attributed to not being quite physical enough.
Until the Ravens prove to the Steelers that they can halt their running game, they figure to see a steady diet of Mendenhall right and left.
"Oh, yeah, I think that happens more than anything," Mattison said. "When a team does have success at one phase or the other, you know in this league you’re going to get it coming back again to see if you’ve fixed it. ..
"A lot of tackling is mindset. A lot of tackling is you just going a little bit extra, and them knowing that, ‘Hey, I’ve got to make sure against a bigger back, that I have to wrap him harder.’ You’ve got to have a little different mindset about who you’re going against, that way.”
Last season, Mendenhall rushed for a career-high 1,108 yards.
He rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Mendenhall is a great running back," Mattison said. "He has the ability to make you miss in the hole, and at the same time, he can run very physically. So, you’ve got that combination, usually they don’t go hand-in-hand. He also shows that he can break it away once he gets in the opening. He’s as good a back as we’ll play against, and so that’s going to be a very big challenge for us."
Lewis broke Mendenhall’s shoulder as a rookie, ending his season.
That’s the kind of intensity this rivalry breeds.
"There’s nothing like it," Lewis said. "There’s nothing like when they come here and we go there. We know what we’re going to get and neither side is going to disappoint each other."
Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison hasn’t forgotten how the Ravens discarded him, cutting him to retain tight end Daniel Wilcox.
When it comes to the Ravens, the Steelers’ ferocious outside linebacker is more often the hammer than the nail.
“I hate the Ravens more than I do anybody else,” Harrison said. “I hate losing to anybody, but to them it’s a lot worse.”
That’s primarily because both teams believe they have the best defense.
Since 2000, the Ravens have allowed a league-low 286 touchdowns with the Steelers ranking second with 309 scores surrendered during that span.
"We’re almost illegal now the way we play," Lewis said of the two defenses. "That goes to the respect the way both defenses carry their jobs and how important we make it. If you watch the way they play and the way we play, they don’t worry about and we don’t worry about all the extra stuff. The bottom line is we are going to make you play a physical football game, and they’ll pretty much do the same thing."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco are 0-3 at Pittsburgh since arriving in Baltimore. And the Steelers have won nine of their past 11 games against Baltimore in Pittsburgh.
Over the past three years, the Steelers have won five of seven games in the series. Four of those seven games were decided by four points or less.
Only the Steelers’ 38-7 Monday night win in 2007 had a double-digit margin of victory.
"We play just like them," Clark said. "If you’ve got a bully trying to take your lunch money, you punch him in the mouth and make him fight you for it. That’s what we do and the best team will win."
Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin played against the Steelers in the Super Bowl two years ago. Now, he’s about to be indoctrinated into this fierce border war.
“I’ve been warned about it,” Boldin said. “I’ve been told it’s like no other game.”
The Ravens can’t afford to fall two games behind the Steelers in the division one game before star quarterback Ben Roethliberger’s four-game suspension ends.
Baltimore is looking to extend its winning streak to nine games against backup quarterbacks, a string that includes beating today’s Steelers starter Charlie Batch.
Anyone involved who tries to say this game isn’t personal isn’t being entirely truthful.
"It’s a team you don’t really like," Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You know there’s going to be a lot of pushing and shoving and stuff like that, but it’s a fun game. I look forward to it. It’s similar to a big college rivalry."