Steelers vs. Ravens: ‘Play Nasty, Intimidate’

The toughest players, the craziest moments and the pride of two blue-collar cites: The MMQB caught up with broadcasters from Pittsburgh and Baltimore to dissect football’s hardest-hitting rivalry
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Neither Qadry Ismail nor Tunch Ilkin played in the height of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, but as respective broadcast voices for Baltimore and Pittsburgh they have called their share of crack-back blocks and vicious hits in the classic AFC North showdown. Before his second career in media, Ismail played receiver in Baltimore in the early days of the rivalry, from 1999 to 2001. Ilkin played offensive line for the Steelers from 1980 to 1992, before the birth of the Ravens, when Pittsburgh’s main rivals were the Browns and the Oilers. The MMQB talked to these two broadcasters from each side of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry about how it has changed over the years, the meanest characters, and why these are the toughest teams in football.

KAHLER: Qadry, when you were playing in Baltimore, what was preparing for a Steelers game like? Was it any different than a regular week?

ISMAIL: My lens is a little different because when I played we had the AFC Central and we had Tennessee, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh. Those rival games almost trumped the experience with Pittsburgh, until we became the AFC North. But in 1999, I had a game in Pittsburgh in late December, literally a career day, six catches, 258 yards and three touchdowns. During that week, it was like, We know we are playing Pittsburgh and they are a challenging team and we have to take it to them. I don’t think [Ravens head coach] Brian Billick had any bad blood towards [Steelers head coach] Bill Cowher at the time, but he wanted to win. At the time, we were sick and tired of Baltimore fans selling their tickets to Pittsburgh.

KAHLER: Do you remember a moment when the rivalry started to heat up while you played?

ISMAIL: We talked a lot of smack. During our Super Bowl year [2000 season], [Steelers receiver] Plaxico Burress was a rookie and [Ravens tight end] Shannon Sharpe made a comment like, Wait a minute, who are we playing? Plaxico Burress? That guy, he needs to learn how to play.He’s nothing but plexiglass. That was when Plaxico wasn’t at his prime; he had the physical tools but hadn’t put it all together. It was funny, because I think I was actually saying the same thing and the next thing you know, it did get back to Pittsburgh. It wasn’t like social media now where everything is instantaneous and you sit back and listen to the players go back and forth. Back then you had to wait until you get interviewed to have your rebuttal. The Steelers were like, What are they talking all this smack for? It was a surprise to them.

KAHLER: Who was the biggest Steelers trash-talker?  

ISMAIL: Probably [linebacker] Joey Porter, he was a big nemesis. He always had something to say. In the 2001 season they beat us in the divisional round of the playoffs and he was really one of those guys who was coming into his own and feeling his own. That was the start of it. I think that right there is what ushered in the next phase of it all. Blame it on Joey. There was one game later on where he was pissed off at something that was said during the game and he went up to the Ravens team bus and tried to challenge guys. That burned the embers and made it into a full-fledged war of words back and forth.

KAHLER: Tunch, when you played for the Steelers from 1980-1992, the Ravens didn’t exist. Who were your main rivals? How does the Ravens-Steelers rivalry compare to those?

ILKIN: The Browns were very comparable to that and it was an intense rivalry. There were a lot of fights and extracurricular activities and a real physicality to it. There were also the Oilers, when Jerry Glanville was coaching—there were a lot of fights in those games, a lot of cheap shots and a lot of trash talking. I would actually put both of those teams who were in the AFC Central. When I played there was no North, it was the AFC Central, and it was the Browns, us, Houston and Cincinnati. There was a real nastiness to both of those rivalries. The focus was because of the way Glanville coached those guys during his years—it was just so intense, that seemed to be a little bit more like what we are seeing between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The guys that were older than me, that played in the ’70s, were probably focusing more on the Cleveland rivalry.

KAHLER: Are there any specific Oilers game that you remember being really chippy?

ILKIN: Yeah, the Oilers took a lot of cheap shots at our running backs and I remember that because both [Steelers offensive linemen] Craig Wolfley and myself got fined for fighting and entering the fighting area. They were taking liberties on their tackles and there were a bunch of cheap shots and we went after them to protect our guys and then it was very heated to the point where, after the game, Chuck [Noll] shook Jerry Glanville’s hand and he wouldn’t let it go, he was pointing at Glanville’s chest and he was giving him a piece of his mind. And then there was the year that we beat them in the wild-card round in ’89. They beat us twice during the regular season. Those were the days of House of Pain, the Astrodome was known as the House of Pain. It was a very physical game and very hard-fought game, as our games always were. You always played on the edge. In the overtime period, [Steelers defensive back] Rod Woodson stripped [Oilers running back] Lorenzo White of the ball and recovered it and then [Steelers kicker] Gary Anderson kicked a 51-yard field goal. And I’m not a trash talker but there was a lot of trash being talked in that game. A bunch of the Oilers were on the ground and they couldn’t believe they had lost, and I remember just yelling, “House of Pain, baby! How does it feel now?”

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KAHLER: You never played in this Steelers-Ravens rivalry, but you’ve seen the whole of it as a Steelers broadcaster. How have you seen it change?

ILKIN: I think the rule changes have really changed it a lot. The helmet-to-helmet rule, the crack-back rule, all the things that made this rivalry fun have been eliminated from the game. The other thing that has changed is the Bengals have become one of the villains in the AFC North over the last five years. So that will change your focus. Rivalries tend to change based on who is playing well and also the characters that are involved. You get a guy like [Bengals linebacker] Vontaze Burfict and all of a sudden he becomes Public Enemy No. 1 if you are a Steelers fan. The fact that the Bengals have gotten into the attitude, We’re the toughest team in the division, we’re the bully of the neighborhood, those things have factored in as well. The Browns rivalry is gone. You would be hard-pressed to find people who remember it. You have to be my age, close to 60. You have to be at least over 50.

KAHLER: What makes this rivalry so intense?

ISMAIL: This is a division known for it’s defense, known for the real physical nature of play, traditionally some upper-tier running backs play in this division and I think that lends itself to a physical style of play. Hines Ward is famous for people saying he took a lot of cheap shots, whether it be Ed Reed or Jarret Johnson, you always had your head on a swivel if there was a turnover. You had stars like Troy Polamalu who was a thorn in the Ravens’ side. You’re on a Sunday night game and it is a prime-time stage and all of a sudden Polamalu blitzes off the blindside and gets a strip-sack fumble on Flacco and it changes the tide of the game. It’s always something from the defensive side of the ball. [Ravens linebacker] Bart Scott famously blitzing and Ben Roethlisberger not seeing him and he just flat out tattooed his butt and you see him get smashed to the ground. It’s a fun game; it’s an intense game. There have been playoff games that matter. It’s been divisional round games, wild-card games. We’ve seen it all with this rivalry. I flat out love it. I think it is a great game to call as a broadcaster.

ILKIN: I think it started because there was some real competition between Brian Billick and Bill Cowher. And then the Ravens’ defense and Ray Lewis and, of course, Rex Ryan was coaching that defense. There were so many villains; there was Hines Ward. I remember that Bart Scott said that Hines told him that he wanted to kill him after one of his crack-back blocks. Hines had a crack-back on Rod Woodson, my old teammate, and Rod took exception to it. I know the fans of Baltimore loved to hate Hines, not only because he was a physical player but also because he was a good receiver and he always had a smile on his face. It got very intense and there was the game where Troy gets the pick-six in the AFC Championship. The times when these two teams play, there is an animosity because of the competitive natures and because they are physical, tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar franchises. The Ravens have had their star defensive players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. And the Steelers have had James Harrison and Joey Porter and Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, so there is a lot of toughness. And then, let’s face it, the division has always been at stake. Since the AFC North came to be, either the Ravens or the Steelers have won it 10 out of the 14 times. When there is a lot at stake, the philosophy of run the ball, play physical defense, play nasty, intimidate, well now it becomes one-upmanship. That’s what has made it so intense and so physical. And then I think when you get a guy like Hines who is a wide receiver and not your typical wide receiver—he is hunting people to light them up, that stokes the fire. A wide receiver that knocked somebody on the ground. It’s been fun to watch.

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KAHLER: Are these two teams really tougher than others in the NFL?

ISMAIL: I’m searching all the divisions in my mind and I’m sure everybody is going to have their hatreds, Redskins-Cowboys, Giants-Cowboys, you look out west and see Kansas City- Denver, you have some traditional games that matter to different teams. The NFC South has the watered-down version, but I’m sure to Atlanta fans and New Orleans fans, it’s a back-and-forth. But I don’t really think any of them hold a candle to the intensity that is the Ravens-Steelers. It has withstood the test of time and you have a new cast of characters now. It’s shifted from the guys that will be up in their respective Ring of Honors, but still, without question it is an intense rivalry.

ILKIN: I think there is a physical toughness and intensity to this rivalry that I don’t really see anywhere else. I’m close to it, so I see it differently. If you were to ask me, what is the most physical rivalry, what is the most intense rivalry in the NFL? I would say hands down it’s the Steelers-Ravens.

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KAHLER: Who has been the toughest guy on either team over the course of the rivalry?

ILKIN: I would have to say Hines. It’s because you don’t expect a wide receiver to play with the physicality and the toughness that Hines did. There were a lot of tough guys, whether it was Joey Porter or James Harrison or Terrell Suggs or Ray Lewis or Haloti Ngata but you expect those guys to be tough. You don’t expect that toughness out of a wide receiver, so I’m going to go with Hines. For a Ravens player, the guy that has hurt the Steelers the most is Terrell Suggs, from a standpoint of production.

ISMAIL: I would say the most pain-in-the-ass guy who has laid out a number of Ravens has been Hines Ward ... As for the Ravens, it is a toss up between Terrell Suggs, who has had some vicious hits over the years, and Ray Lewis, who had a vicious hit on [Steelers running back] Rashard Mendenhall—and Mendenhall was never was the same after it. I look at Ray Lewis as the tone-setter but you can’t go wrong with either him or Suggs. But then I guess James Harrison is another dude that you definitely don’t want to meet in a dark alley.

KAHLER: Qadry, you started your career with the Vikings. How does this rivalry compare to the Green Bay-Minnesota rivalry?

ISMAIL: Both of them have the fan bases lathered up because of their traditions. For Baltimore, in a very short amount of time, they won the two Super Bowls. Steeler fans like to brag about SixBurgh, and all their Lombardi trophies. But I tell people, ok go back and look at your history and see what 20 years have brought you. You guys sucked! Whereas the Ravens, they have been excellent right off the bat. I think that burns Steeler fans a little bit. I think the Ravens fans feel it is us against the world. I get it everywhere we go, I hear, We need to win, we need to win. Last year we were 5-11 and fans were just like, Yeah, two of those wins were a sweep against Pittsburgh! Whereas with the Minnesota-Green Bay rival game, that was… just because me being new to the league, that was like, Oh wow, you have rivals in the NFL? This is interesting. It was intense. My first touchdown as an NFL player was against Green Bay, down in Milwaukee. We had the same sideline, which was kind of awkward. The fan base in Minnesota was like, Look, my entire year will be made if you guys beat Green Bay because I don’t want to hear these Green Bay fans that are in my office talking smack, I just can’t stand it. I remember one year in Minnesota, there was a block of tickets and Green Bay fans decided to wear these yellow sweaters right up in the corner of the end zone, and the heckling and back and forth was crazy. The biggest difference [between the rivalries] is Green Bay has Vince Lombardi and the trophy that bears his name whereas Minnesota has been there four times and has come up empty.

KAHLER: What makes Steelers-Ravens games more interesting to broadcast than others?

ISMAIL: It’s an easier game to prepare for, because there are more things to talk about that are literally right in front of you. The madness starts during pregame. When the Steelers would introduce the Ravens, it’s almost like belittling the Ravens. And then obviously the crowd gets all hyped up for the home team. Well, John Harbaugh knew this and had a strategic way around it. They would say, Ladies and gentlemen, the Baltimore Ravens and a chorus of boos came from the stands. Harbaugh would wait and say, Hell no, we ain’t going out. And at the last second, they would be forced to introduce Pittsburgh because of time constraints on TV, so the crowd gets amped up and all of a sudden Harbaugh would run his team out to the cheers and the crowd goes, wait a minute are we cheering the Ravens?

Weird and funny things happen in this rivalry. The Jacoby Jones thing was in a prime-time game here in Baltimore. You’ve got Mike Tomlin stepping out onto the field on the kickoff return, that was as classic a gaffe as it got. That was funny. It wasn’t funny, but it was funny. All of that makes it a really cool broadcast. That was hands down the craziest thing. It was just weird, like what is he doing? It was odd in every way but it goes down as one of those crazy games. That’s just what it is: the Ravens-Steelers rivalry takes on another dimension.

KAHLER: Which team has the better fans? Which city is better?

ISMAIL: I know this is a joke—you’re kidding right? Baltimore hands down has the better fans. Pittsburgh doesn’t even have enough good enough fans to have cheerleaders. This is a great city and a great fan base. We have tradition in this city before, the Colts have won championships in this city before. One of the reasons I decided to come back here with my family is because this is a tremendous city in general. I love the flow and the flavor of it. But to be fair to Pittsburgh, they have their different eateries that you have to go see, whether it be Primanti Brothers or Pamela’s. No question about it, you can’t go wrong with either city, I’ll give them a little love, but my heart bleeds purple.

ILKIN: Are you kidding me? I’ll tell you one thing, we don’t get a lot of Ravens fans at Steelers games. But you see a lot of Steelers fans at Ravens games and there is no comparison between the two. Steelers fans, there is nobody like them! When you walk into Heinz Field and you see 68,000 terrible towels twirling, there is something to be said for that. I’ve played in every stadium in the NFL and I have broadcasted in all of them. I’m not sure there are any fans like Steelers fans anywhere.

KAHLER: Terrell Suggs told The MMQB’s Peter King that the Ravens need a nemesis to bring out their greatness. Like Michael Jordan needed the Pistons, or Muhammad Ali needed Joe Frazier. Do you agree?

ILKIN: I believe that and they also bring out the nastiness in each other. There’s been so many villains over the years. I’ve heard Suggs’ comments over the years and he’s right. There is an added desire to impose your will on that opponent. Let’s face it, there is a lot of animosity towards players that you play really hard against and really physical and nasty against and you want to make sure that you are the one that wins your battle.

ISMAIL: If you look at these teams in this short span of time, and how they won Super Bowls and they are perennially in the conversation of being one of the better teams of this league, I think he is totally right. It matters. Terrell Suggs talking to some of the young players like, This is a game that can define your legacy. People talk about the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, but man, if you can do something special, that is going to set you up. It is a defining game and it really does matter when it comes to your level of play. I love it. It is something special for sure.

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