2002 was supposed to a rebuilding year for the salary cap hobbled Baltimore Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers would sweep the Ravens, amassing a four-game winning streak dating back December 16th, 2001. The Steelers were looking forward to that game after losing to the Ravens earlier that season 13-10.
"We all know what happened the last time we played them," Steelers WR Plaxico Burress said. "Nobody wanted to look ahead, as far as the previous week, but I think this is one of those games we put an asterisk on top of when we lost at home. We beat those guys up physically. We know it. All we have to do is go down there and beat them up again this time and, hopefully, come out of there with a win."
The Steelers had to beat the Ravens in Baltimore and then once more in the playoffs to shut them up. However, that wouldn't last long. Drubbing the Ravens in Baltimore once again, this time in October of last season, did little to quiet the players. The Steelers simply did not have the respect of the Ravens.
"I don't think they're that much better than us," Ravens LB Ed Hartwell said. "We just made mistakes, and they capitalized on them. They just did what they're supposed to do. Better than us? No, we came back in the second half and proved they weren't better than us."
The Ravens lost 31-18, but they were not going to give Pittsburgh its due.
"It's a good team," Ravens OT Jonathan Ogden said. "I'm not going to put them in the class of Pittsburgh teams we've played before, but they're not the worst team I've played against. They're pretty good right now."
Ogden and the Baltimore Ravens had only been playing the Steelers since 1996. Was he referring to the 1996 Steelers that the Ravens beat in just their second meeting? He couldn't be talking about the 1998, 1999 and 2000 Steelers that didn't even make the playoffs, could he?
The Steelers and Ravens have played 15 times, the Steelers winning 11 of those match-ups. However, the series hardly feels that one-sided. The Ravens have won three times in Pittsburgh while the Steelers are 6-1 in Baltimore. What each team seems to remember is losing to the other at home.
"We definitely owe them one," Steelers LB Joey Porter said before the second meeting with the Ravens in 2001. "They beat us out here, and that hurts, because they beat us at home. We want to have something special here where it's going to be tough whenever teams come to Heinz Field. They have the confidence because they beat us at home, but we have beaten them in their house, so we're looking forward to going down there."
Despite all the close games with the Cleveland Browns during the 2002 season, you can bet that the Steelers are looking forward to opening 2003 against the Ravens. The Browns front office has mismanaged the franchise since day 1, bungling the rivalry with Pittsburgh. In the meantime, the Ravens won the Super Bowl and earned the right to be the archenemy of the Steelers.
"In order to get where we want to get," WR Hines Ward said during the 2001 season, "we have to go through Baltimore to get there because they are the world champions."
Unless the Steelers manage to win the Super Bowl under Bill Cowher, the Steelers will probably continue to feel that way and the Ravens will continue to disrespect Pittsburgh. Cleveland has no such ring to show off and will pose little more threat in 2003 after Butch Davis finally conceded that the Browns would have to start from scratch after a number of bad drafts and even worse free agency acquisitions.
Everything that Ozzie Newsome has done in Baltimore to grab the attention of Steeler fans; Carmen Policy has done just as much to bring shame to the football traditions in Cleveland.
After three close calls against the Browns in 2002, Steeler fans should have been intently watching every off-season move that Cleveland made. Instead, Baltimore grabbed all the headlines picking DE/OLB Terrell Suggs at #10. The Ravens were intent on improving a pass rush that amassed a paltry 33 sacks last season and left Steeler fans wondering if Pittsburgh could outgun Baltimore this coming season like they did last year.
The Steelers countered with a high profile pick of their own, SS Troy Polamalu. Many may question Polamalu's ability to upgrade the Steelers woeful pass defense, but critics should note that the Ravens pass defense was just as bad, if not worse, than the Steelers last season. Suggs is supposed to be a panacea where Polamalu is not?
The Steelers defense gave up 49 points to the Ravens last season. That's not very good. However, the Ravens yielded 65 points. That's horrible.
Which defense was better upgraded, the Steelers or Ravens?
Somehow, the Ravens have been the media darling so far.
Suggs has been anointed as a sack machine. That certainly couldn't hurt the Ravens defense, but even if Suggs had contributed 15 sacks last season the Ravens still wouldn't have as good a pass rush as the Steelers had. 50 sacks didn't solve the Steelers defensive problems, nor will it solve those of the Ravens.
Were the Steelers corners overmatched? That's not clear, but it was clear that the Ravens corners could not handle the Steelers receivers. How will Suggs fix that problem?
He can't and he won't. However, Polamalu may well be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Steelers.
The fact that the Steelers moved up in the first round to grab Polamalu should speak volumes. Polamalu was the number 1 guy the Steelers wanted in the 2003 draft. Why?
"I don't know if last year was a trend or the way teams decided to attack us," Bill Cowher said at the pre-draft press conference. "You have to look at, number one, who you are working with. Last year, we went to three corners a lot as part of an adjustment to not get caught up with match-ups with Lee Flowers."
The Ravens can tell you how important that match-up advantage can be, as the opposition found out trying to stay with TE Todd Heap. Flowers was the weak link in the Steelers defense and offensive coordinators went after him. The Steelers simply couldn't hide him; no matter what defensive alignment they tried.
The entire Steelers defense was out of character in an attempt to compensate for Flowers' lack of speed. The Steelers had a personnel problem, but the problem was not as extensive as many seem to think.
If the Steelers thought they were two or three players away from a great defense, they wouldn't have gone after Polamalu as they did. What Polamalu's speed will allow is for the other players to get back to their game. That's what Cowher was hoping to get from Dexter Jackson, who went instead to the Arizona Cardinals.
Rewind and watch MLB Joey Porter, in the dime, against the Atlanta Falcons. Porter was exhausted by the fourth quarter, trying to cover the field that Flowers could not. His tackling suffered and he was trying to do too much. A similar tale could be told about other players and the tackling looked sloppier and sloppier.
It all started against the New England Patriots and did not let for the entire season.
"No, that is how we played them," Cowher said about the lack of pressure on Patriots QB Tom Brady after losing the season opener. "We were dropping a lot of people in coverage and we were trying to give them the underneath things."
The Steelers called off the dogs because they wanted to avoid getting burned deep because of Flowers' lack of speed. Replacing Flowers with Polamalu will bring back Blitzburgh and Tim Lewis can return to the schemes that proved so successful in 2001.
Flowers is now gone, but the hatred of the Ravens remains. Steeler fans are not all that worried about the Browns first round pick, C Jeff Faine. Faine will certainly have his hands full with NT Casey Hampton. Instead, fans are wondering if QB Tommy Maddox will be able to avoid Suggs. What everyone seems to be missing is how the Steelers will be the more improved defense in 2003 and that the Ravens have no proven commodity at quarterback.
A heated rivalry will do that. Have the Browns improved during the off-season? No one, save a Browns fan, seems to care. Steeler fans are eyeing nervously the activities in Baltimore. Will Pittsburgh become "Ravens Country" once again? Troy Polamalu will have more to say about that than Terrell Suggs.