THE Football Rivalry / by Maxwell Young

 Hines Ward & Ray Lewis jawing.

Hines Ward & Ray Lewis jawing.

I wonder if there's a Baltimore Ravens fan, residing in Pittsburgh, who was born in Pittsburgh. Pittsburghers have this really keen obsession with wearing black n' yellow and their Pittsburgh pride whether it be on a Stillers Sunday or during a quick trip to the local Giant Eagle.  Wearing the 'Uh huh, you know what it is. Black n' yellow. Black n' yellow.' is something so ingrained into the Pittsburgh culture that I adamantly believe there isn't a single yinzer dawning those intense purple and black colors.  On the other hand, Steelers Nation runs so vast that there are certainly Terrible Towel wavers tucked into the Baltimore Harbor ready to stand proudly for this Sunday's rivalry game.

There are a lot of historic match-ups in the NFL--cowboys and indians personified with the Washington Redskins versus the Dallas Cowboys, the New England Patriots and their Super Bowl kryptonite New York Giants, and even the Chicago Bears versus the Green Bay Packers--but the best rivalry in the National Football League is between the Pittsburgh Steelers and their mid-Atlantic neighbor, the Baltimore Ravens.  You will not see a harder fought game, a harder hitting game, or a more passionate game than this AFC North battle.  Allow two of the games fiercest competitors in Hines Ward and Ed Reed to narrate their time playing in these battered games.

Think about some of the League's best players and coaches who have shaped this match.  I'm talking about Bill Cowher, Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Ed Reed and HEEAATH Miller.  Current general commanding Baltimore's vaunted defense, Terrell Suggs, put it simply on Thursday saying, "These games will define you."  We haven't forgotten Psycho Ward's vintage knockout hit against Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu's Super Bowl clinching interception in the 2008 AFC championship.  Coaches keep their jobs and players make their legend in these dog fights.  No matter the records of these two teams or who's on the field, both franchises come to hunt and kill. 

That violent smash-mouth style of football this very rivalry has been predicated on is the by-product of the Steelers blue-print.  The style of play that captivated the original Steelers Nation and came to epitomize the  identity of the rust-belt region it was played in--a gritty Steel Curtain defense with a big-play, ground-and-pound offense--has been mimicked and schemed against since the 1970s dynasty.  The Ravens have been the most effective imitators of the Steelers' football ethos.  In 1996, the franchise went out and drafted its own Hall of Fame tone-setting linebacker in Ray Lewis.  Then, in '98 the franchise plucked a former Steeler and Hall-of-Famer in Rod Woodson to upgrade their defense.  After Ben Roethlisberger proved impervious to the harsh mid-Atlantic weather and tormented opposing defenses with his cannon of an arm and escapability, Baltimore invested in their own strong-armed quarterback, Joe Flacco.  

The 45th meeting of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens is set to be a redeeming one for the six-time Super Bowl champions, as the last time the Steelers were victorious came five meetings ago on November 2nd, 2014.  Tomorrow's Week 9 game is also an opportunity for the Stillers to get their season back on track after losing two straight games.  Injuries to core defensive players, like Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier as well as Big Ben's awkward torn meniscus in his left knee, have stymied the progression of this talented Steelers squad.  Ranking 21st in defensive efficiency, the Steelers are playing uncharacteristically on the defensive-side of the ball.  Running backs are flipping two hundred yard games and we are barely touching opposing quarterbacks.  The return of Heyward will add much needed pressure on Joe Flacco, while Shazier will be able to nullify some of the Ravens' playmakers.  Twenty days after undergoing knee surgery, Big Ben is anticipated to play, surprising no one on the Ravens defense.  His presence for the rest of the season controlling the 9th most efficient offense in the League will hopefully ignite Antonio Brown and maximize the usage of Le'veon Bell.  Nothing in this game will come easy though, as a first place lead in the division is on the line.

I don't hate the Ravens.  It's hard to have hatred for a team that brings out the best in their opponent.  Twelve of these cage-match games in the last decade have been decided by three points or less.  And despite the recent regular season success of the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers and Ravens have long been considered the class of the AFC North, combining for eleven fist place finishes.  I would call it more of a respected disdain.  After all, imitation is the purest form of flattery.