To the Baltimore Ravens, Hines Ward is an irritant looking for someone's skin under which to crawl.
Linebacker Bart Scott has threatened to kill him, presumably in the football sense. Linebacker Terrell Suggs said he placed a bounty on him. Linebacker Jarret Johnson was so bothered by Ward in the first meeting he foolishly hit him out of bounds on a reverse by Nate Washington, a penalty that led to the Steelers' first touchdown and ultimately changed the landscape of the game.
Ward, though, just flashes that grin -- the one that likely also irks the Ravens -- and shrugs his shoulders.
"I didn't know a little 6-foot, 200-pound wideout, 32 years old, is causing so much of an uproar in Baltimore," Ward said.
Oh, but he does.
Ward is the player the Ravens love to hate, the Jarkko Ruutu of his sport. He will be reviled when he takes the field tomorrow in M&T Bank Stadium when the Steelers (10-3) play the Ravens (9-3) in a game that could clinch the division title and a first-round bye for the Steelers. But he would be loved and adored if he were wearing the purple-and-black of the Ravens.
"I don't know what I'm doing to get under their skin," Ward said, wearing a bemused look. "Maybe they just don't like my smile or something. I have no idea. I guess they don't like it."
Actually, what the Ravens don't like is the way Ward has de-cleated several of their players with vicious blocks, among them Scott and Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed. But they probably don't like that smile, either because to them, presumably appears smug.
"It's OK for them to go beat up on our guys and knock [Rashard] Mendenhall out for the year and brag about it," Ward said. "But, somebody hits them, oh, it's big noise."
One way or another, Ward always makes big noise with the Ravens. And it's not just being an irritant with his physical style.
The four-time Pro Bowl receiver has had five games against Baltimore in which he has caught eight or more passes and has 75 catches, 844 yards and four touchdowns in 14 career games against the Ravens.
Even when he was held to just two catches in the first meeting this season, Ward still managed to make a big play -- catching a 49-yard pass over Reed to set up a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Ward, though, has kind of disappeared from the passing game.
He caught only one pass for 2 yards against the Dallas Cowboys -- matching his career-low for receiving yards in a game in which he caught at least one pass. But it was the second time in the past three games -- and only the sixth since 2001 -- that Ward has caught just one pass.
Surprisingly, the drought followed games in which Ward posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving efforts against Indianapolis and San Diego for only the second time in his career.
"Last week, [the Cowboys] had a great game plan," Ward said. "I was getting bracketed by a linebacker and, sometimes, three or four guys. I can't get frustrated. I still got to go out there and continue to work hard and make plays when it presents itself. I didn't have that many opportunities, but other guys stepped up and played big. That's been the case all year."
Why didn't Ward complain like Willie Parker?
"I'm not like that," he said. "My thing is, you're only as good as your opportunities. If the opportunity is not there, there's nothing you can do about it. People can look into stats, but we don't have that type of offense where we're singling out one guy."
Perhaps, but the Ravens do a nice job of singling out Ward. He is the villain, the poster boy for the rivalry, and their disdain is such that even the mild-mannered Troy Polamalu can't help but build a healthy dislike -- his word -- for the Ravens.
"Whenever you see somebody talking bad about your teammates, you don't really like that, especially when they authentically wish they probably had a player like Hines," Polamalu said.
Ward is undaunted.
"I love it," he said. "I don't shy away from it. I'm not going to change the way I play."
And that is what the Ravens likely really dislike.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com .