— There are only two reasonable options to choose from as the NFL’s best rivalry over the last decade: Patriots-Colts or Ravens-Steelers.
The game you prefer says a lot about you as a football fan. Patriots-Colts is all about quarterbacks. Ravens-Steelers is all about hitting; about the free blitzer forcing the one mistake that changes a season.
The quality of Ravens-Steelers games exceeds the hype before them, which is exceedingly rare. The Jets and Patriots are a soap opera off the field, yet the games are rarely memorable. Pittsburgh and Baltimore deliver drama on the field.
Each Ravens-Steelers game tells a story about why the matchup is so great. Let’s look at a few of those stories from the last three years, and what lessons they can teach us for Saturday’s matchup.
The Steelers usually find a way
(Sept. 29, 2008: Steelers 23-20; Dec. 14, 2008: Steelers 13-9)
The dirty secret of this rivalry: how one-sided it is. The scores are close — five of the last seven games were decided by three points — but the results all too familiar for Ravens fans. Pittsburgh has won all five games Ben Roethlisberger started against Baltimore since 2008.
The two regular-season games in 2008 symbolize the series perfectly. In Week 4, the Steelers were down 10 points in the fourth quarter. They were on their fourth-string running back and lost a starting offensive lineman for the season. They overcame.
In the second game, the Ravens led 9-6 until Ben Roethlisberger got the ball with 3:36 left. 92 yards and a controversial touchdown throw to Santonio Holmes later, the Steelers were AFC North champions. It was the only touchdown of the game.
"All game they didn't make plays," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said at the time. "One drive they did."
Many players have changed since, but the themes haven’t. Steelers linebacker James Harrison first came to national prominence against Baltimore in a Monday night game in 2007. The Ravens still struggle to block him. (Harrison had 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the first 2008 game.)
Baltimore drafted Michael Oher in 2009 to handle Pittsburgh’s outside rushers. Oher has endured an up-and-down 2010 season; his ability to hold up on Saturday will be massive. Pittsburgh’s offensive line gets deserved criticism, but Baltimore’s group hasn’t played consistently well all year.
The Ravens often don’t trust their offense to pick up short yardage plays on the ground. They get stymied at the goal line or make a mistake at midfield. It’s usually while throwing the football. Pittsburgh has consistently played better in the fourth quarter in this series by keeping Baltimore’s defense guessing.
Well, most of the time …
Joe Flacco can make fourth quarter magic too
(Oct. 3, 2010: Ravens 17-14)
Flacco’s game-winning touchdown to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 34 seconds left in Week 4 represented a huge step in Flacco’s development. This was a game the Ravens had to win with Charlie Batch at quarterback for the 3-0 Steelers.
Baltimore often appears to outplay the Steelers, yet can’t capitalize on the scoreboard. That was especially true in 2010. Baltimore’s offensive line had one of their best games, moving the ball well all day. But the Ravens turned it over twice, and the defense gave up an inopportune fourth-quarter touchdown.
It’s hard to explain why Baltimore’s defense struggled late in games so much in 2010. The Falcons, Texans, Patriots and Bills all rallied on them. The Steelers almost had more penalties (7) than first downs (8) entering the fourth quarter in October. Batch promptly led them on a 93-yard touchdown march.
Flacco responded, like he has for most of his third season. Flacco has thrown 26 touchdowns to five interceptions since Week 3. His game-winning drive was clinical: 4-for-4, 40 yards, and a game-winning toss in only 34 seconds off the clock. He knew exactly where to go with the ball. He has the arm to hit the sideline throw, and he knows when to look off a safety.
Flacco still has more career picks (7) then touchdowns against Pittsburgh (6). He’s sacked on average 3.5 times-per-game. His consistent progress gives Baltimore its best hope.
This rivalry has mostly been defined by the two best defenses of the last decade. Flacco’s emergence as a true foil to Roethlisberger means the matchup should remain just as relevant this decade.
Ray Rice can give the Steelers fits
(Nov. 29, 2009: Ravens 20-17)
The Ravens needed overtime to beat Pittsburgh, even with Dennis Dixon making his first career start for Pittsburgh. An interception by Ravens defensive end Paul Kruger on a zone blitz was the big play in OT and running back Ray Rice dominated in regulation.
Rice racked up 310 yards from scrimmage in two games against Pittsburgh in 2009. He’s the key player on Baltimore’s offense this weekend because he’s the one Raven that can make people miss. Pittsburgh doesn’t really have a linebacker that can handle Rice as a checkdown receiver. Few teams do.
Rice was limited by injury when he faced the Steelers this October. Now he’s playing his best ball of the year. The availability of tight end Todd Heap is also important for the Ravens; he was knocked out immediately in the team’s Week 13 loss to Pittsburgh.
Big Ben is the big equalizer
(Dec. 5, 2010: Steelers 13-10)
Just after this game finished, I asked the football gods to grant us a third Ravens-Steelers matchup this season. They were listening.
The rubber match could easily be in Baltimore because the Ravens were in control throughout December’s game. Terrell Suggs lived in the Pittsburgh backfield with five quarterback hits. The Steelers lost their starting right tackle during the game, and had no answer for Baltimore’s blitz. Ben Roethlisberger came through with yet another late drive after Troy Polamalu recorded a sack fumble on Joe Flacco.
Big Ben has made incremental improvements reading defenses, although that’s not his strength. He’s quietly improved other parts of his game this year. His shortened delivery has helped him avoid sacks and interceptions better than ever before.
Roethlisberger often defeats the perfect defensive play call. Suggs had him in his grasp for a game-changing sack, and Roethlisberger shook him off to escape the pocket and throw an incompletion.
Back in 2008, Ravens defensive lineman Trevor Pryce had some sage words on how to handle Roethlisberger.
"Here's my advice to the Arizona Cardinals: Don't rush Ben Roethlisberger," Pryce said. "After that, he's a playground football player. That's what he is, and he's a damn good one."
The 2010 Ravens would be wise to listen. The speed of the Steelers receiver group has to worry Baltimore. Mike Wallace got deep against the Ravens a few times in the team’s first 2010 matchup, but Charlie Batch couldn’t hit him. (Wallace led the Steelers with 76 yards in the Week 13 game.)
Roethlisberger’s scrambling ability allows for more time for Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown to get open. Pittsburgh’s young receivers could be the difference Saturday. They have a huge speed advantage compared to the Ravens’ trio of slow possession wideouts. Baltimore wideouts Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh all struggle to get off man coverage.
At some point, it has to get in Baltimore’s head that they can’t beat Roethlisberger. Steelers did virtually nothing for three quarters in December, yet still scored 10 in the fourth quarter to set up another home playoff game. Sound familiar?
They hit even harder in the playoffs
(Jan. 18, 2009: Steelers 23-14)
Ravens running back Willis McGahee lay momentarily unconscious on the ground. Nearby, the football McGahee was carrying was just recovered by Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Down nine points with less than four minutes left, the Ravens were knocked out.
McGahee thankfully proved to be fine after he was carted off the field. He took the worst hit of the night, but he was hardly alone. I’ve never seen a more physical NFL game.
"It's always that way," said Roethlisberger at the time. "This is always a 12-round slugfest. We always go at it. It's always violent from start to finish. I was ready when I took a knee at the end, you never know when somebody is going to fire off the ball."
Steelers receiver Hines Ward left the game early.
"Sometimes guys get hit so hard, you don't know if they're going to get up,” Ward said.
As Ray Lewis might say, these teams don’t play fantasy football. They play for real football. A Troy Polamalu’s pick six of Joe Flacco with under five minutes left was the decisive play. Once again, an entire season flipped in one moment, one play.
I can’t wait to see what that play will be on Saturday.