Steelers vs. Ravens: Top 5 Players Who Define the NFL's Most Physical Rivalry

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IISeptember 3, 2011

Steelers vs. Ravens: Top 5 Players Who Define the NFL's Most Physical Rivalry

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    NFL opening weekend sees a great fight scheduled as the Pittsburgh Steelers get ready for a physical scrap with the Baltimore Ravens to kick off the new season. Does it get any better?

    Arguably the greatest modern NFL rivalry, the Steelers and Ravens are unmistakably each other's greatest nemesis.  

    In a duel between two franchises that likely feel most quarterbacks should wear skirts, Ben Roethlisberger, complete with his battered body and broken nose, illustrated last season that he is the exception. Like Big Ben, every player on the field must be unrelenting, as games between the Steelers and Ravens require an awareness of the physical sacrifices necessary to win.

    Each game is a new chapter of the rivalry that sets the clear precedent for modern ballgame battery. Their style of football comes as close as it gets to that which your grandfather can remember from back in "his day."








    In a series that showcases physicality between two championship-caliber football teams, which players have best exemplified what it is to be a member of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry?

    This countdown honors the tough guy, the "tougher than woodpecker lips" (thanks for the comparison, Tunch!) contributors to the at least twice annual "Battle of Bruises."

    One thing is for sure: To make this list, the player has to know the ire that burns bird feathers or melts steel!

Honorable Mentions: Haloti Ngata, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Ryan Clark, Bart Scott

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    In a list condensed to a mere handful of players, a few fine representatives are sadly destined to be absent. One common bond amongst both teams is their physicality and intensity, and this parallel is largely the result of two rosters filled with fine players that fit that mold.

    Haloti Ngata has become a force in the rivalry. In 2010, he recorded 11 tackles in a 17-14 comeback victory by Baltimore at Heinz Field.

    Additionally, during a game later that season in Baltimore, he was the Ravens' defensive stalwart that broke the nose of Ben Roethlisberger. For the remainder of the evening, the Steelers quarterback played with a mangled snout, blood about his white jersey, only to lead Pittsburgh to a comeback victory in Baltimore.

    Turnabout is, after all, fair play!

    Troy Polamalu has made his presence known by harassing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Most NFL fans await the full leadership maturation of Flacco, who is known as "Fluke-o" to many loyalists in the Steel City.

    This perception has been largely aided by the Pittsburgh safety, whose interception touchdown in the 2009 AFC Championship Game sent Pittsburgh to its seventh Super Bowl. This turnover preceded a strip fumble late in a December game last season that ultimately decided the AFC North victor.

    Ryan Clark is the safety opposite of Troy in the Steel City. Fans vividly remember his vicious hit on Ravens running back Willis McGahee that ended a brutal championship struggle in January 2009. On the other end of hard collisions has been Ravens safety Ed Reed, whose All-Star play against other NFL franchises seems mostly lost against Pittsburgh, where he has been more a target for battery than a defensive stalwart.

    Lastly, who can forget Bart Scott's vicious sack of Ben Roethlisberger in 2006, a season of sheer domination by Baltimore over Pittsburgh?

    All of these physical specimens are great players from a great rivalry. They all also have another common characteristic: They narrowly missed this list!

No. 5: (TIE) Plaxico Burress and Shannon Sharpe

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    Great modern rivalries come with classic trash talk. In 2001, the defending champion Ravens had twice been dominated by Pittsburgh heading into a playoff game between the division enemies. Despite the staggering statistical edge in the Steelers' favor, the season series was split.

    Heading into the playoff game, a soon-to-be former champion hosted a future champion, and pride was not at a premium. Both teams had swagger and felt they had something to prove in a budding rivalry. 

    Most observers cite this season as the catalyst for the sheer passion involved between the clubs. In an attempt to get into the psyche of rising star Plaxico Burress, who shared a career year with Hines Ward in 2001, Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe referred to the tall, lankly Pittsburgh wideout as "Plaxi-glass."

    Burress responded with class, telling all that plexiglass bends but doesn't break!

    This was not the first time that Sharpe criticized the Steelers. Following a shutout win in the 2000 season opener at Three Rivers Stadium (16-0), Sharpe spoke to the Steelers' internal turmoil, citing their team as looking at its worst ever during his own personal career.

    For all of his word wars, the final outcome was served on the gridiron. When the battle took the football field, Plaxico Burress caught a late touchdown pass from Kordell Stewart, gathering in the ball and stiff-arming Rod Woodson to the ground. It was the clinching score, securing Pittsburgh's place in the AFC Championship Game and ending the season of the defending champion Ravens.

    The Steelers were nowhere near as far from contention as Sharpe had indicated, and this defeat served notice to the sports world that a new rivalry was budding in the AFC North.

No. 4: Ray Lewis

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    Let me take the words from most of your mouths or brains and say, "Ray Lewis? No. 4?!"

    Ray Lewis is one of the greatest linebackers of all time and the emotional leader of the Baltimore Ravens, bar none. 

    In his tenure and presence, the Ravens have become truly ravenous, boasting some of the best defensive units in NFL history. At the peak of their domination, the 2000 Ravens, quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer and fielding an unusually anemic offense for a champion, won the Super Bowl, 34-7, over the Giants.

    With defense came a tough, physical identity. It's easy to see why the Pittsburgh Steelers felt they had a new sibling in the house of the AFC North. This similarity between the teams started with a change in culture in Baltimore, and that originated with the arrival of Lewis.

    Like any family relationship, the Ravens and Steelers have a love-hate relationship. Both teams love the style with which the other plays football, hating that they do it so well. Ray Lewis, a well-spoken and honest player, would likely be the first to admit his love of the Pittsburgh game and hate of the team itself.

    In a rivalry defined by physicality and defense (let's be honest), it would be a crime to leave off the most physical defender of this generation. Ray Lewis is the face of defensive football in the NFL, and Steelers vs. Ravens is the matchup that best exemplifies this style.

    Thus, by translation, Ray Lewis is the face of the style that defines this rivalry. Anybody who understands these two foes knows that hating or loving the Baltimore Ravens starts with the legendary linebacker.

    While Lewis is the face of modern defense, there are—almost unbelievably—three men ahead of Ray that better represent the state and history of the great AFC North duel.

No. 3: Ben Roethlisberger

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    The faceless figure in the playoff nightmares of Baltimore players has a real life name: Ben Roethlisberger. The back of his T-shirt certainly reads, "Stealing AFC North Titles from Baltimore Since 2008."

    Truthfully, the Ravens' frustration against Big Ben started in 2007, when Roethlisberger threw five first-half touchdowns in a rain storm on Monday Night Football.

    In 2008, Roethlisberger gave a passionate halftime speech during a Monday Night Football clash with the rival Ravens. The Steelers, trailing 13-3, rallied in the second half and won 23-20 in overtime.

    Later in the campaign, Ben led the Steelers to a game-winning touchdown in Baltimore. After buying time in the backfield (often called "holding the ball too long" in Pittsburgh), the Steelers' sure-fire Hall of Famer found Santonio Holmes, who caught the ball along the edge of the goal line for a controversial touchdown.

    Holmes would catch the only touchdown from Ben in that year's AFC Championship Game, a 23-14 Steelers win that elevated their all-time playoff record against the Baltimore's blood-lusting birds to 2-0.

    After a win in his only start against Baltimore in 2009, Roethlisberger repeated his division-winning feats in 2010. Late in a critical game in the AFC North, Troy Polamalu, a direct torturer of quarterback Joe Flacco, forced a fumble. Roethlisberger and the offense seized the opportunity, and Isaac Redman battled through Ravens defenders to the winning touchdown off a third-down pass from Big Ben.

    Adding to the feat was Roethlisberger's nose, which had been broken by the hand of Haloti Ngata. Fans watching the game looked in disbelief at the sight of the quarterback's snout—bent and bleeding.  With his jersey covered by drops of blood, Ben stayed the course, leading his team to the eventual win.

    The three-year curse continued this past January, as the Steelers defeated the Ravens for the third time in the postseason. The key play came on 3rd-and-19 with minutes remaining, as Big Ben hit rookie receiver Antonio Brown down the right sideline. An amazing catch against his own helmet made Brown a late-game hero, and the Steelers scored the game-winning touchdown shortly afterwards. 

    Indeed, Roethlisberger has been a true Balti-bane, defeating the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era Ravens all six times he's faced them.

No. 2: Terrell Suggs

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    Terrell Suggs is the most obvious and direct antagonist against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans in the history of the rivalry. 

    As it concerns the faces of defense—or physical football—Suggs would never rank ahead of his teammate Ray Lewis. However, as it concerns this specific rivalry, Terrell has more than entrenched himself as the more colorful face.

    It all originated from a bounty. Suggs had mentioned a bounty for wide receiver Hines Ward and running back Rashard Mendenhall in 2008. During a Monday Night Football game, the rookie runner broke his collarbone, ending his first season with the Steelers.

    Although he later attempted to clarify his statement against the pesky Steelers receiver, the damage was done. A bounty was heard, and Mr. Suggs thus began his status as a public enemy in Pittsburgh and key face of the NFL's hardest-hitting rivalry.

    As months—even years—pass, Terrell continues to make headlines with his great defensive play. Against Pittsburgh, Suggs is nothing if not effective. He's recorded 15.5 sacks in 16 career games against Pittsburgh, the equivalent of a magnificent full season.

    This includes three sacks in this past January's divisional playoff contest. Heading into the game, Suggs described the impending game as World War III, and his play showcased his intense desire to win. In addition to his description, Terrell made headlines with the media, wearing an eye-catching shirt during the days before the game (see video).

    Despite the personal importance to the huge playoff game, the Steelers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to win 31-24. Surely, Suggs is still bitter about the outcome. Almost as certain is the reality that the star defender will make his presence known once again in the 2011 installment of the defensive fistfight.

    Two things are for certain against the Steelers:

    1) Suggs is going to create headlines.

    2) Suggs is going to back them up with his play.

No. 1: Hines Ward

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    Tunch Ilkin, a color commentator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has often described Hines Ward as being "tougher than woodpecker lips."

    What else needs to be said about how the Steelers favorite embodies the attributes of the NFL's toughest rivals?

    Not only is the wideout able to catch footballs that seem entirely out of any feasible reach, but he also plays the position of receiver on more than just passing downs—and he plays it with great physicality.

    He's a tough blocker and the essence of a tough guy, though he certainly walks the line of legality. While the NFL's toughest receiver has not drawn suspension or fines for his actions, his peers have voted him the league's dirtiest player.

    Ward disputes this notion, and I would agree. There is a difference between dirty and unexpectedly tough, and there is nothing wrong with forcing opponents to pay attention.

    Why do opposing players need to pay attention to him?

    Ask Ed Reed (see video).

    While his pass-catching and technically sound blocking make him a complete package, Ward's willingness to lay the borderline legal (or illegal, in most parts) knockout blow on his rivals, which is to say any other team in football, has made him the ire of many players and franchises.

    His ability to get under an opponent's skin is no more evident than in the rivalry against the Ravens, where the Pittsburgh favorite has been the target of bounties.

    In a physical fight for AFC North domination, many Ravens equally love him for the same reasons that they thoroughly hate him.

    Of many wonderful comments and quotes about the hard-working Steelers receiver, perhaps Brian Billick, former Ravens coach, has the most honesty:

    "I'd take him in a New York second. I'd love to have him on my team."