Steelers

Lolley’s Kickoff: Analysis, stats, data, picks ☕

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Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco after a game last season. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Troy Polamalu. Hines Ward. James Harrison. Ray Lewis. Ed Reed. Terrell Suggs.

The great players that once made the Steelers-Ravens rivalry the best in the NFL are now all gone. The Ravens assured that in the offseason by ridding themselves of Joe Flacco and Suggs, while the Steelers are now without Ben Roethlisberger.

Largely, only Mike Tomlin and his Baltimore counterpart, John Harbaugh, remain from a series that saw these two teams battle not just for AFC North supremacy, but NFL supremacy from 2008 through 2011, when the series was at its most heated and the two teams combined for three Super Bowl trips and two wins.

Just don't tell Harbaugh the rivalry is dead, as the Steelers (1-3) prepare to host the Ravens (2-2) Sunday at Heinz Field for the first of their two meetings this season.

"That stadium is still amazing and they still stand what the Steelers stand for," Harbaugh said. "The Steelers are the Steelers and the Ravens are the Ravens. It’s just two good organizations. I believe in this rivalry. It’s one of the greatest rivalries in sports. The faces are going to change, but the histories are not going to change. Those guys are going to be a part of it always. Hines Ward and Ed Reed. Now, it’s just adding to it. It doesn’t take anything away from it."

The names aren't the same, for sure, but when the guys in black and gold come out of the tunnel to play the team in purple and black, it's going to be a physical football game.

"Oh yeah," Maurkice Pouncey told me. "Nothing has changed. This is AFC North football. This game still carries all the meaning it always has."

It most certainly does this week, despite the Steelers' 0-3 start. A victory by the Steelers over the Ravens would put both teams at 2-3. And if the Browns lose Monday night in San Francisco, there would be a three-way tie for the division lead. And the Steelers, based on their 2-0 record in the division, would technically be the top team.

Worst to first, just like that.

Of course, it's still way too early to start thinking about things like that, but the division games do take on an increased importance in what's looking like a three-team race.

"We understand the ramifications and the significance of division play, particularly when you’re in the circumstances that we’re in, in terms of not getting off to a good start," Tomlin said. "It makes it doubly important."

How close has the series been? Tomlin is 12-12 against the Ravens in his career. Harbaugh is 11-11 against the Steelers. And the two teams are 19-19 against each other since 2000, even though the Steelers have won four of the past five meetings.

But those faces have changed significantly. In fact, this will be the first time Roethlisberger or Flacco won't start a Ravens-Steelers game since the final game of the 2007 regular season. The Troy Smith-led Ravens beat the Charlie Batch-quarterbacked Steelers, 27-21.

That's a long time ago. Mason Rudolph was 13 years old then, while Lamar Jackson was 10.

“It’s going to be pretty crazy,” Jackson said. “No Ben, a whole new team, a new era. We just have to get ready for it.”

At least for this year. Roethlisberger is expected to return to the Steelers in 2020. But for now, it's a whole different feel.

Especially considering the offenses. The Steelers broke out the Wildcat last week, running it seven times in a win over the Bengals. And they've employed a short passing game to help Rudolph settle in. The Ravens, meanwhile, have the league's top rushing offense.

The Steelers and Ravens games often come down to field position in defensive struggles, but this time around, it could be all about controlling the clock.

"This thing might be over in about 20 minutes," Harbaugh joked. "That’s part of it. You try to factor that in."

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