Harrison and Lewis have defined the Steelers-Ravens rivalry for years. (Photo credit)
In 1996, owner Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, leaving behind all traces of the former franchise. Brown became purple, “Browns” became “Ravens," and one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL, Steelers-Browns, became a new-yet-not-new rivalry, Steelers-Ravens.
The move shook the NFL, as one of the most dedicated fanbases in sports lost the team they loved, and one of the historical bedrock towns of the game, Baltimore, was once again put into business 12 years after losing their Colts to Indianapolis. Additionally, the Central, the smashmouth division of the AFC, saw one of her top two teams born anew.
The rivalry with the Steelers did not come to an end with the relocation, even with the dissolution of the categorical bonds that defined it. The Browns would return to Cleveland three years later, playing in the same division, which itself would change from the Central to the North three years after that, in 2002.
The new Browns have not yet lived up the promise of the old Browns, allowing in their competitive absence a deepening of the animosity between Pittsburgh and what they and their fans consider to be the spiritual descendant of the old-school Browns, the Baltimore Ravens.
1996 would see a franchise-defining change to Modell’s club other than simply which town they played in, and what name they wore on their jerseys. It was the year that the franchise drafted, and began to play, a linebacker from the University of Miami named Ray Lewis. Likewise, while 2002 was the season that the Central became the North, it was also the season that the Pittsburgh Steelers signed an undrafted linebacker from Kent State named James Harrison.
The wheels were now in motion, and though it would not be realized for a few more years, the two teams now had the physical centerpieces of what would in the later part of the decade become the most competitive and vicious rivalry in America’s Game.
Harrison and Lewis were drafted six years apart, and their individual paths to stardom could not have been much more different. Lewis, the high draft pick heralded among the elite college prospects at his position, coming from the powerhouse Miami Hurricanes, earned All-NFL Rookie Team honors in his first year.
Harrison, by contrast, was undrafted, and was a practice squad player for his first couple of years. At one point, he even signed with another team briefly – the Baltimore Ravens, in 2004. Harrison would wait until his 4th season in the NFL before making his first pro start, and then only due to injury.
While the two could hardly be more different, from their body types to their personality types to their introduction to the sport at its highest level, one characteristic that would come to define both more than any other, the tough and violent nature with which they play the game, could not be more similar. It is the grit that embodies their division, their franchises, and their time in history rebuilding and rebranding what hate in the NFL looks like.
The Steelers-Ravens rivalry that has developed over their careers is one of animus. It’s one built upon the grind, built upon the blood and bruises and broken bones. It’s one of excellence.
In his career, Ray Lewis was a 13 time Pro Bowler and 10 time All-Pro, both NFL records for a middle linebacker. He was clutch in the postseason, breaking the NFL record for tackles in the playoffs, and being named MVP in one of his two Super Bowl victories. Harrison, meanwhile, has logged 5 Pro Bowls and 4 All-Pro selections in his career to date, and also has two of those big shiny rings.
Lewis has been named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice to Harrison's one. Harrison’s 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII is possibly the greatest play in that game’s history, and Lewis is possibly the greatest linebacker in THE game’s history.
During the careers of Lewis and Harrison, their games have become bloodbaths, replacing the Steelers-Raiders dogfights of the 70s as one of the NFL’s premier blood-and-guts hatefests. In the stadiums in which each plays, the home team’s first loss was to the other.
Hines Ward was said to have a bounty on his head by the Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger once played half of a game with his nose quite obviously broken, thanks to a shot to his face by Haloti Ngata. Terrell Suggs wore shirts he had made to express his feelings toward the Steelers, including one of a Raven flipping off the entire city of Pittsburgh. Ryan Clark once hit Willis McGahee so hard that Clark was knocked unconscious, and McGahee spent the night in the hospital.
While there have been moments of professionalism and mutual respect, players have often used the media to express their hatred for their counterparts. They have almost unanimously used the games to express that hatred in the best manner available – bone-crunching hits, unrelenting violence on the field, the kind of unforgettable concussion-caught-on-audio-from-the-upper-deck football that only happens when all involved are determined that they absolutely will not lose to THEM.
Also during the careers of Lewis and Harrison, their franchises have combined for four Super Bowl wins in five appearances. Since Baltimore won the first of these following the 2000 season, no division in the NFL has won more championships than the rough-and-tumble AFC North.
In that time frame, the two teams have faced each other on 29 occasions, including three in the postseason. The Steelers are 3-0 in the postseason matches, including the 2009 AFC Championship Game, but the 26 regular season tilts have been competitive to the tune of a 14-12 advantage to Pittsburgh. Three of the games have gone to overtime, and 14 have ended with a final margin of a field goal or less.
In fact, in the final 9 games of the Harrison-Lewis era of the rivalry, going back to the 2009 season, 7 of the 8 regular season contests between the two have been decided by exactly three points, with Baltimore holding a 4-3 edge in those 7 games. In 2008 and 2010, the two met in the playoffs – the Steelers won both games, and played for the Super Bowl both years.
Not only that, but at least one of the two has led the NFL in total defense five times in the last eight years, with both teams finishing top-6 in the NFL in that category in the same season five times as well.
NFL Total Defense Rank
During this offseason, the Harrison-Lewis era officially concluded, with Lewis retiring, and Harrison being released by Pittsburgh for lack of funds. Only time will tell what’s next for the two squads involved in the game’s best modern rivalry, as they play on without the two men who perhaps more than any other defined what Steelers-Ravens was, and has become.
By: Jeremy Hurtt