On his first visit, they treated him like the neophyte he was.
They picked him off twice and sacked him two others in a 30-13 thrashing. The Ravens, led by a prime Ray Lewis and a rapidly ascending Ed Reed, would finish that season with the league’s sixth best defense. Ben Roethlisberger was a 22-year-old rookie who relieved starter Tommy Maddox in the third quarter.
Despite the lumps he took in that, his first dose of NFL action, Roethlisberger did throw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Even then, he would not stop coming.
Over the years since that initial encounter in 2004, the Ravens have faced Roethlisberger 26 times in the regular season and thrice in the playoffs. His Steelers have won 18 of those meetings, encompassing some of the most brutal, unpredictable, invigorating action of this NFL century. If Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium is Roethlisberger’s last regular-season bow — as he has said it probably will be — he could not finish in a more fitting locale, with both teams clinging to playoff hopes.
No player has loomed as a more constant rival to the Ravens. In his prime, Roethlisberger was a horror-movie bogeyman in a No. 7 jersey, the figure who could not be pulled to the turf at the game’s crucial moments. In later years, he became the respected voice of experience on the other side of an enduring feud. The “Big Ben” the Ravens see Sunday won’t be the quarterback who haunted them a decade ago, but he did beat them earlier this season and twice last year.
“The game is never over with that guy, until the last, final whistle blows,” said Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, who has faced Roethlisberger since 2011.
Like most long-term Ravens, Smith can point to moments he’ll cherish — the December 2015 victory in which he intercepted Roethlisberger and had a 101-yard pick-six called back because of an offside penalty — and ones he’d prefer to forget.
“He’s just kicked our butts numerous amounts of times,” Smith said. “And we’ve had some good games against him.”
It’s striking how clearly veteran defenders remember their first and best games against Roethlisberger. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee recovered a fumble in his NFL debut, which just happened to be a 28-point blowout of the Steelers. But the second meeting of that 2011 season is the one he’ll always cherish.
He was late for the team flight to Pittsburgh and then overslept in his hotel room, raising the ire of his position coach, the late Clarence Brooks, who punched a hole in the wall. McPhee responded with a half-sack the next day as the Ravens won on a last-minute touchdown catch by Torrey Smith.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Coach went off on me, and then I went out there and balled out.”
McPhee recalls so clearly in part because Roethlisberger was a unique, momentous opponent. Older teammates told him to make sure he was angry when he reached No. 7, to “leave your Ravens decal on his jersey.”
“He was like a giant tight end playing quarterback,” McPhee said. “You had to know how to sack him when you got to him, by pinning both arms down. … That’s what made him so great, it’s crazy to say but his escapability away from the sack. He had crazy pocket awareness, crazy upper-body strength where he could just throw you off.”
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has watched Roethlisberger rise from the dead to lead so many comebacks that he questioned whether the 39-year-old quarterback will actually retire.
“Who knows with Ben?” Martindale said. “He’s like the Terminator. You think about the history of this game and this rivalry, how many times he’s been hit. You can picture them as fans, as writers, as coaches. It’s just what they don’t show is him getting up and playing the next play or playing the next series. It’s unbelievable his resiliency and his toughness. If there’s a ring of fame for this game, he’s definitely on it.”
He noted that even this version of Roethlisberger, who relies on quick releases more than zombie play extension, has led the Steelers to more fourth-quarter points than all but one other team. Seventeen of those came in Pittsburgh’s Week 13 win over the Ravens.
Comb Roethlisberger’s history against the Ravens and you’ll find all types of games.
There were afternoons and nights when he was almost perfect: 13-for-16 for 209 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-7 victory in 2007, 25-for-37 for 340 yards and six touchdowns in a 43-23 win in 2014, 506 yards in a 39-38 thriller in December 2017.
On other occasions, the Ravens got the better of him: two interceptions and nine sacks in a 2006 shutout, three interceptions and four sacks in a 35-7 blowout to start the 2011 season, two interceptions and five sacks in a 2015 playoff win in Pittsburgh.
So few games, however, resulted in clear knockouts for either side.
They were more likely to resemble the December 2010 game when Roethlisberger threw an interception in the second quarter, took three sacks and had his nose broken by an inadvertent swat from Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but still led two second-half scoring drives to seize a 13-10 comeback victory.
When Ngata was asked to name his favorite hit at his retirement news conference in 2019, he said: “Breaking Ben’s nose.” As laughter filled the auditorium, he quickly added: “I didn’t do it on purpose, but it just kind of happened.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin recalled the same moment when talking to Pittsburgh reporters about the rivalry: “I often tell the young guys a story about the time [Ben] got his nose broken in Baltimore, and he came to the sideline during the timeout and said, ‘How do I look?’ It’s just is what it is.”
So it went in the never-ending battle between a proud defense and a quarterback who, at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, was built more like a linebacker.
“Make no mistake, this series is special because of the men that have played in it,” Tomlin said. “Guys like Ben pitting his skills against [Terrell] Suggs, guys like Hines [Ward] pitting his skills against Ed Reed. You could go on and on and on. That’s what makes this series what it is. … It’s the story of the men, those gold jacket guys, those guys that have unique talent, but it goes beyond their unique talent.”
If Roethlisberger had a generational counterpart on the Ravens, it was Suggs, who entered the league a year before him. It’s no coincidence that the Ravens asked their former defensive leader to return to Baltimore as “Legend of the Game” for Sunday’s final matchup.
Suggs had a sack in Roethlisberger’s first game, but it was on Maddox. He ultimately produced some signature games against his nemesis: two sacks in that 27-0 shutout in November 2006, three in the 35-7 beatdown to open the 2011 season. He also boiled with frustration after Roethlisberger slipped from his grasp to lead backbreaking comebacks.
McPhee was struck by the cerebral war behind their showdowns. “They knew each other like brothers or cousins,” he said. “Suggs knew everything about him, all his hand signals, all his code words. He caught two picks on him, one in 2011 and one in 2014 — the one he caught between his legs — and that was just him knowing ‘Big Ben,’ the way he liked to change his calls, the plays he liked to go to on third down.”
In later years, both men characterized their rivalry in respectful terms.
When the Steelers quarterback criticized his own play heading into a 2017 matchup, Suggs jokingly accused him of attempting “Jedi mind tricks” on the Ravens.
The two exchanged signed jerseys after the Ravens beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in 2018, Suggs’ last season with the Ravens.
Roethlisberger called Suggs, who sacked him more than any other opponent, “one of the best I have ever played against.”
With Roethlisberger expected to join Suggs in retirement after this season, will the Ravens-Steelers rivalry enter a different era?
Smith, who might also retire after this season, thinks so.
“There are only a couple guys left that Ben has even played against numerous times on our squad,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the rivalry era, but it’s definitely the end of those big-name guys, and it has to start anew.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 5
Source: Berkshire mont