But behind the scenes, there’s a player that summarizes the grittiness and physicality of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry just as much.
That player is
The Ravens have the second-most sacks in the NFL (22). Despite being an outside linebacker, Upshaw has just one of them.
But while Upshaw rarely gets praise from fans or media, he’s earning it from his coaches and peers.
“I think this guy is kind of unheralded in some ways because some other guys overshadow him,” Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said last week. “Courtney Upshaw does a lot for our defense.”
Suggs leads the Ravens with seven sacks.
“He does the dirty work as you would put it,” Dumervil said. “He’s our rock.”
Upshaw handles a lot of the run situations, setting the edge opposite Suggs. Dumervil said Upshaw is one of the best in the league at turning run plays inside where he has more help.
Upshaw is also sometimes used as a pass-rushing down lineman, or pass-rushing inside linebacker. He will sometimes bull rush into a couple of blockers, creating holes on the outside or inside for other blitzers. He’s setting up opportunities for others, but there is no statistic for assists.
“A lot of times, he’s kind of setting the pick or doing something to get somebody else free and doesn’t say a word – just, ‘Hey, that’s my job, and that’s what I’m supposed to do,’” Pees said. “That’s why he’s such a team player.”
Pees raved about Upshaw’s smarts. He compared him to former Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who departed for San Diego in 2012 after nine years in Baltimore, in terms of his understanding of the game.
Upshaw doesn’t just memorize what he’s supposed to do on a play, but understands why. That way, if he gets an unexpected look from the offense he can change what he does.
“You can play him anywhere, whether or not it’s the best thing for him physically,” Pees said. “Football makes sense to him.”
There’s a whole lot of brawn that goes along with that brain. The 6-foot-2, 272-pounder out of Alabama remembers telling Ravens scouts about his physicality when he was coming out of college. Since then, he says he’s tried to back it up.
“I love being physical,” Upshaw said. “We all want stats, but I just do what I have to do. If they ask me to go in and stop the run and set the edge, if they tell me to be an inside rusher, I do it. I love football. I compete.”
Dumervil said Upshaw “knocks tight ends around.” Head Coach John Harbaugh said he’s simply been a football player since Day 1.
“You understand what type of player he is. He’s a physical player, and that’s exactly how he’s played,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens drafted Upshaw in the second round of the 2012 draft, their top pick that year after trading back. He played in all 16 games and started nine, making 38 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Before the Ravens signed Dumervil, it looked as if Upshaw was going to be in line for a much bigger role as a three-down outside linebacker. But even though he’s not that in his second year, it’s not because Upshaw isn’t playing up to his potential.
Ravens-Steelers matchups are well known for their physical battles, and each team feels like it will win if it’s the more imposing group. On Sunday, Upshaw’s brutality will be on full display.
“He’s playing at a really high level,” Harbaugh said. “He’s one of those guys that you have high expectations for. He’s a high draft pick, and he comes in and fulfills those expectation – I’d say now even more.”