John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin Have Elevated Rivalry


This year's first installment of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry doesn't have the same cast or plot we're used to.

That doesn't mean it still isn't the vicious, intense clash that Thursday Night Football thought it signed up for. It's just different.

There's no Terrell Suggs T-shirt depicting how much he hates Pittsburgh. There are no Troy Polamalu hair commercials. There's no Ben Roethlisberger, and thus no chance of seeing Courtney Upshaw realign his jaw or Haloti Ngata bust his nose.

There's no Suggs, no Polamalu, no Big Ben, no Ngata at all.

But two men still stand at the forefront of their organizations, and the rivalry still stands as one of the best in the NFL, perhaps because of them.

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin arrived in 2007. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh arrived in 2008. Since then, the two teams have split their regular-season meetings, 7-7.

"Harbaugh and Tomlin, I feel like they've made this rivalry even bigger than it is," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "I watched [Ravens-Steelers] growing up, but when Harbaugh got here it really, I think,* *became a rivalry. A rivalry is where the teams win about the same amount."

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry during the Tomlin- Harbaugh began on Monday Night Football from Heinz Field with a 23-20 Steelers win.

Eight years is almost lightyears by NFL standards, where rosters have a tremendous amount of turnover each season. Year by year, the names have changed as players have retired and moved elsewhere.

Now, there are only three players remaining from those playing on Sept. 29, 2008 – Flacco and two Steelers, outside linebacker James Harrison and tight end Heath Miller.

"[Miller] has been there forever," Harbaugh joked this week. "I am so looking forward to when he finally retires."

What's unique about this rivalry, however, is that it has remained the same despite new blood being added.

Take Elvis Dumervil, for example. On Monday, Dumervil said the Ravens-Steelers rivalry was one of the reasons why he signed with Baltimore in 2013. He's only two years into it and he says, without hesitation, that it's the best rivalry in football.

Dumervil even altered his entire offseason training program to better prepare his body for the physical toll of AFC North football games such as this one.

"I think the first year, I kind of realized how physical the game is," Dumervil said. "It was very exciting to be a part of it."

Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. is in his 15th season and said he's never been as sore as he was after his first Ravens-Steelers game last season, a 26-6 Baltimore win at M&T Bank Stadium. Smith said the closest comparison, after living in North Carolina for so long, is SEC college football games.

"It's something that you really can't put into words," Smith said. "It gets my blood flowing, and goosebumps run down the back of my neck. It's just one of those games. It's what football is all about."

The Steelers feel the same way.

"Obviously, it's not the same faces everybody is used to from the rivalry, but it's still Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh, and it's always going to be that heated," said third-year running back Le'Veon Bell.

"I think one of the things that makes the rivalry what it is, is that the new faces emerge and make significant plays on both sides," Tomlin added. "I'm excited about watching that evolve."

It's not just the faces that are different this year. The circumstances around the game are odd too.

The Steelers are off to a solid start at 2-1, though they could be in trouble without Roethlisberger for the next "number of weeks" with a knee injury. The Ravens are 0-3 for the first time in franchise history.

Never have the Steelers been able to deal such a big blow to Baltimore so early in the season.

But Pittsburgh isn't putting much stock into that, though Bell said the Ravens' slow start is a "little bit surprising."

"Once the game starts, the records go out the window," Bell said. "It's Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore, and anything can go down at any moment. … We have to go out there and play like they're undefeated, and we're going to play like we're undefeated."

If anything, Tomlin thinks the Ravens' record will add to the intensity of the game. On Monday, he told the Pittsburgh media that he expected an "angry" Ravens team to step onto Heinz Field.

"I'd imagine that 0-3 doesn't define them," Tomlin said. "I'd imagine that they're not demoralized. Quite frankly, I'd imagine that they're angry. Having been in that circumstance in the past, that's probably more the reaction when you have the type of team they have."

These two teams couldn't be more evenly matched over the years, and it goes beyond 2008. Since 2000, their series is split, 15-15. Last season, the two teams each blew the other one out by 20 points at home before Baltimore claimed the tiebreaker with a 30-17 victory in Pittsburgh in the AFC wild-card round.

Thursday night will be the Ravens' first time back since, and it will again be under the lights.

"It's fun to go up there, it really is," Flacco said. "I have a blast. If you're on this team, and you don't just jump at the opportunity to go play up there, then there's something wrong with you, because it really is a lot of fun. It's one of the best atmospheres there is."

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