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Old 11-03-2011, 08:08 PM   #1
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Default Ravens, Steelers go to 'dark place' to ignite fierce rivalry

Ravens, Steelers go to 'dark place' to ignite fierce rivalry

By Albert Breer NFL Network
NFL Network Reporter
Published: Nov. 3, 2011 at 05:10 p.m.
Updated: Nov. 3, 2011 at 06:14 p.m.

In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):

"This game isn't everything. We'll have 15 weeks to run them down, or they'll have 15 weeks to run us down. And I know we'll get better either way."

John Harbaugh said that to me two days before his Ravens beat down the Steelers, 35-7, on Sept. 11 in Baltimore. And for the most part, his feeling on all of that stands as the teams get ready for the return match Sunday in Pittsburgh.

But Harbaugh's also living in reality here. The Ravens have only swept the Steelers once since moving from Cleveland in 1996. Doing it now would be a first for a lot of folks in purple, the coach included.

So yes, it'd mean something to go into Heinz Field and finish that job. It's not hard to figure why, either, with this rivalry being not only the NFL's best, but also its fiercest.

"What would it mean?" Harbaugh asked, rhetorically, Tuesday night. "It would mean we'd have a one-game lead in the loss column on them, we'd have a leg up on Pittsburgh with the tiebreaker. Would it be meaningful? This is a team we have great respect for. It's our rival, no matter what they want to say about it being a rivalry. For both teams, you beat your rival, I'm pretty certain it means a lot."

Harbaugh's been in Baltimore for four years now, and the face of the team has changed plenty in that time.

This year, in particular, it's getting younger. Where the coach has relied on new guys in key spots in the past, like Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, 2011 has signified the organization turning over much responsibility to a set of young players (Ed Dickson, Terrence Cody, Jameel McClain, Cary Williams, Lardarius Webb) and rookies (Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee and, once he's healthy, Jimmy Smith).

That transition may explain six rough quarters for Baltimore -- four in Jacksonville last Monday followed by the first two against Arizona -- but Harbaugh's feeling is every team has those types of bumps. He was proud of his team's ability to grind through a tough time and come out with the second-half flourish it had against the Cardinals. The idea is to improve, whether it's Flacco (consistency), 29-year-old Terrell Suggs (added rush moves) or 27-year-old Haloti Ngata (leaner, quicker).

"We're only getting better," Harbaugh says, "but that doesn't mean we don't have bumps like every other team."

And the bumps are worth it, in his mind, to develop young talent.

"We're not hanging on here, we're trying to build something lasting," Harbaugh continued. "People can scoff or say stuff about some of the moves we've made, but that's what we're building for. We held on to Haloti. And Ed (Reed) and Ray (Lewis) are gonna play as long as they can, those guys and Jarret Johnson are Ravens for life. And we're bringing the young guys along, with the coaches doing their jobs. It builds a self-fulfilling, propelling program. We think we have something special building here."

The Steelers have hit their own roadblocks, too. Three weeks after the crushing loss in the opener, they were pushed around in Houston and, until last Sunday against New England, didn't have a signature win. Even after handling the Patriots, Pittsburgh's injury issues -- staples James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Hines Ward are working their way back -- are enough to elicit concern.

But Baltimore and Pittsburgh have fought their way here, again. As usual, both are in contention, with a lot on the line.

For all the benefits of the big construction effort Harbaugh's referencing -- he's been openly saying it's his goal to build a dynasty in Baltimore -- these games are where referendum are passed on that progress. And that's because so much of that building, in both places, is to prepare for these street fights.

Over the phone, Harbaugh traded stories about his first experience in one of those, which also happened to be my first time at one of them, back in 2008. That was the game where Lewis ended Rashard Mendenhall's rookie season by, more or less, breaking his torso in half, and I told Harbaugh that it felt to me like that one was played in a dark place. And I said the rest of them since have felt that way, in a way no other NFL games do. He agreed.

"It's almost surreal," Harbaugh said. "All of a sudden, everything's different. You go into this dark place. It's like you're in this globe, in a good way, and suddenly there's nothing outside of that moment, outside of that stadium. It's unique to these games, and yet, both teams are so comfortable in that place. It's where we're supposed to be. It's where they're supposed to be. It's hard to describe."

Harbaugh has split home-and-homes with Pittsburgh the past two years, after the Ravens were swept in the coach's first season. There are common threads over that period, too. In all three cases, the Steelers won the second of the teams' two regular season games. In 2008 and '10, that meant when the two teams met in the playoffs, the games were at Heinz Field, and the Steelers won both of those.
"All of a sudden, everything's different. You go into this dark place. It's where we're supposed to be. It's where they're supposed to be."
-- Ravens coach John Harbaugh on the Ravens-Steelers rivalry.

As for the potential of home-field advantage being on the line, Harbaugh says he and his team hardly mind going into the lion's den. Screaming fans, with Styx's Renegade blaring and the Pittsburgh defense looming? "We love that song, too," said Harbaugh. "We get just as jacked as they do."

So the Ravens aren't going in there to prove a point. But they're well-aware that, if they can pull this one out, that's just what they'll do.

"It's a big challenge, it always is," said Harbaugh. "This team plays football the way we play football -- we understand each other. And we know we have to pour ourselves into this game completely -- emotionally, physically, intellectually. We know there's a lot on the line. But if we win this game, we have to follow that up and make it matter."

But truth be told, few Sundays matter like this one does to these two teams. And when it's over, that won't be difficult to see.

(This is also from the same article. The rest of the article is not about our Steelers. - mesa)

Three Conclusions
2) Ben Roethlisberger belongs among the NFL's top-five quarterbacks. The four names that you generally hear atop the quarterback charts are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. For now, let's give Manning his injury mulligan and leave him in the group. And tack Roethlisberger's name in there as well. What he proved against New England on Sunday is he can adjust to changing conditions. The Patriots weren't going to give him the deep ball -- and the Steelers are now built on the perimeter to accentuate that part of Roethlisberger's game -- and they weren't going to let him break contain. So he sat in the pocket, and chipped away. When it was over, he'd paper-cut his way to 365 yards and two touchdowns on 36-of-50 passing and shown his maturity as a quarterback. That's what the greats do. They adjust when their strengths are taken away.
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