By Joe Starkey
Steelers safety Ryan Clark levels Ravens running back Willis McGahee during the 2009 AFC Championship Game. (AP)
Seven years ago, on a field at Baltimore Ravens training camp in Westminster, Md., I asked then-Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan about the Steelers.
“I don't like Pittsburgh,” Ryan said. “But I respect them.”
The feelings were mutual. They still are. That's the great news here: Steelers-Ravens has endured.
The names have changed. It'll never be the same as when Hines Ward, James Farrior, Bart Scott, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and the boys were bangin' heads. But the rivalry endures, and rivalries are what make sports great.
Imagine your life as a Pittsburgh sports fan without the Ravens or the Philadelphia Flyers to loathe. If you're well past the halftime intermission, imagine it without the old Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders or Philadelphia Phillies … or the Flyers. Imagine it without Penn State and West Virginia.
It is a bloody shame the Backyard Brawl disappeared. Steelers-Ravens easily could have done the same after a long, strong run. Both teams needed serious retooling. Either could have faded. It's a testament to the strength of their organizations that neither sank below 8-8 during the process.
For my money, Steelers-Ravens remains the best rivalry in the NFL and the best this town has.
With that in mind, one man's snapshots of Steelers-Ravens from the Mike Tomlin era …
FIVE INCREDIBLE HITS
5. Courtney Upshaw nearly breaks Ben in half. Call it the modern-day version of Bart Scott's Ben blast, the one of which Scott memorably said, “It felt good to hear the air leave his body.”
4. Hines Ward rocks Reed and Scott in the same 2007 game. The second one had Scott threatening to “kill” Hines, who just kept on smiling.
3. Ray Lewis snaps Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder blade like a piece of kindling. Was this the play that drove Mendenhall into deep thinking?
2. Jarret Johnson de-cleats Ward. One thing about Hines: He knew the Ravens would get him someday. It happened during Baltimore's blowout win in the 2011 opener, when Johnson ambushed him running across the middle without the ball. Said Johnson: “Everybody wants to knock that guy out.”
1. Ryan Clark nearly maims Willis McGahee. One of the scariest hits you'll ever see, from what might have been one of the most violent championship football games ever played.
THREE WEIRD SCENES
3. Byron's scramble. Who could forget statuesque, 250-pound Byron Leftwich rambling 31 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown two years ago? It was the longest run of Lord Byron's career and proof that when it's Steelers-Ravens, somebody who normally would skip out of bounds just might decide to turn upfield. Even if he's moving at the rate of an inch worm.
2. Clark's invasion. Steelers safety Ryan Clark entered the Ravens' locker room after a 2012 loss at Heinz Field and pretended to interview childhood friend Ed Reed. I was standing there, and let me tell you: It was mighty uncomfortable. I couldn't help but think what might have happened if Ward or Joey Porter had entered the Ravens' room in such fashion.
As then-Steelers lineman Max Starks put it: “I don't think Hines would have been received well at all.”
1. Tomlin's blowoff. This was a beauty, after a 2012 win in Baltimore, as Icy Mike tried to keep running after a cold and silent shake. John Harbaugh held on. He pulled Tomlin back and said, “Hey, hey, hey, I said congratulations.” Tomlin looked back and offered a “Thank you. Good job.” before moving along. If there were a Passive Aggressive Hall of Fame, these guys would be first-ballot inductees on that exchange alone.
THREE UNFORGETTABLE MOMENTS
3. Troy's parting of the seas. Close your eyes, and I'll bet you can see it: Late in the 2008 AFC title game, a young, crazy fast Polamalu sprinting untouched through a sea of Ravens inside the 10 and holding the ball aloft with both hands — a gift for the football gods? — as he crosses the goal line. Heinz Field nearly exploded in ecstasy.
2. Tomlin's near tackle. The Steelers were fined $100,000 after Tomlin stepped over the sideline and nearly tripped Jacoby Jones on a kick return last season. Tomlin claimed innocence. At least one Ravens player wasn't buying it. This is what Joe Flacco, who had threatened such a move in the previous year's Super Bowl, said at the time: “(Tomlin) was looking at the big screen the whole entire time. He knew where he was, and he knew where Jacoby was. He pulled my move.”
1. Charlie's last stand. Ancient Charlie Batch, in the final start of his career, beat the Ravens on a dramatic late drive. “To silence those 71,000 people? Wow. What better feeling could you have?” he said.
THREE FABULOUS QUOTES
3. “A little 5-9 linebacker gets four sacks. That will never happen again in his life. He knows that.” — Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, referring to James Harrison, who had nine tackles, 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, one recovered fumble, an interception and a TKO of Ed Reed on a punt return in a 2007 game.
2. “Who is Trevor Pryce?” — Harrison.
1. “That team beat us last week, then they went and got their (butt) kicked this week.” — Harbaugh, to his players in the locker room after a win over Tennessee this season, referencing the Steelers' loss to Rex Ryan's Jets.
You can bet Tomlin will repeat those words once or twice behind closed doors this week. I'll repeat these, from The Book of the Great (Bart) Scott, in advance of Saturday night's bloodbath:
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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