The previous time Willie Colon played against Baltimore, it was ugly. Painfully so. The Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger four times, intercepted three of his passes, recovered four Steelers fumbles and partied in Baltimore after a 35-7 stampede to start the 2011 season. • "It was a bad day," Colon recalled during a quiet moment this past week. "It was even worse the next morning when I heard the news."
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They should have delivered it to him in a rubber room, because after Colon missed the entire 2010 season with a torn Achilles tendon, he was told his 2011 season was over just as it began. He came out of that thrashing in Baltimore with a torn triceps muscle that would put him back on injured reserve.
"I was really devastated," Colon said. "I felt I was really coming along, really excited about making that next step."
The next steps involved another long year of rehabilitating a serious injury. Tonight, he'll stare across the line at some familiar sights in purple uniforms for the first time since Sept. 11, 2011, only this time he will do it as a left guard and not a right tackle.
"I've been through a lot on and off the field. It's one of those obstacles that I had to overcome," Colon said. "It was tough, it was draining, but nevertheless I'm here now and it's a blessing."
His return has been more than a blessing to the line. His play at guard has been exemplary. Pro Football Focus ranks every player in the league at his position. It ranks Colon as the fifth-best run-blocking guard in the league and the sixth best pass-blocking guard. Combined, he would be the fourth-best blocking guard overall except the rankings weigh all those penalties he's had against him. He's been flagged 10 times and only two were declined.
With a change in quarterback tonight, the play of Colon and his offensive linemates becomes even more important. Protection for the less mobile Byron Leftwich is crucial to their chances of what now would be an upset of the Ravens, and they'd love nothing better than to run successfully on the 26th-ranked run defense.
"If we don't outplay their defense and their line, we may end up on the bad side of the fence," Colon said. "I know all five guys have kind of been called out already. To win this game, it has to be on our backs."
A loss would drop the Steelers two games behind the Ravens with a game to go in Baltimore and a total of four left against AFC North Division opponents.
"This is a huge game for us looking down the road at things," Colon said. "They kind of wiped through Cleveland, and we haven't really gotten started with our division play. This can really crack them in half and we need it."
As good as it gets
There is no doubt the Ravens are the Steelers' best rivals, but where does this rivalry rank among others in the 80-season history of the franchise?
The Philadelphia Eagles were the Steelers' early rivals, but that gave way to the Cleveland Browns when they entered the league in the 1950s. That rivalry held as one of the best for decades, probably right until the time the Browns became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996.
So there is a symmetry to the Steelers' rivalry against the Ravens, the same franchise founded in Cleveland no matter what the NFL might say officially.
During that period, other teams popped in and out as heated but not as long-lasting rivals.
There were the Raiders in the 1970s, when the teams had one of the more intense rivalries in the history of the game. Although situated on opposite sides of the country and in different divisions, the Steelers and Raiders met twice annually in 1972, '73, '74 and '76 and once each in '75 and '77 -- 10 times over six seasons. Five were in the playoffs, including three AFC championships.
"I'll never forget in the championship game in '75 when we came out here," former Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano said this summer during his annual participation in Andy Russell's charity golf event here. "They booed so bad that I actually got goose bumps. I couldn't wait to start that game. There was so much intensity, so much hatred, all that beautiful stuff. I couldn't wait to get back on the field."
That bitter rivalry ultimately faded because, after one last hurrah when the Raiders pelted the Steelers, 38-10, in the 1983 playoffs, they no longer played often enough and haven't met in the postseason since '83.
Houston also popped into the rivalry category in the 1970s when the teams met in consecutive AFC championships (1978-79) at Three Rivers Stadium. That rivalry lasted through most of the 1980s even as the Steelers faded, and it included some bitter on-field brawls and a classic postgame confrontation between Steelers coach Chuck Noll and Oilers coach Jerry Glanville.
Their rivalry with the Ravens, though, has to be at the top.
It's continued for more than a decade, and both teams have been consistently good and have been standing in each other's way in the AFC North.
Safer is better ...
but not always
Ryan Clark will play tonight, but he has taken precautions after his second concussion in three games. He has switched to a bullet-proof helmet.
Not only will he wear the more protective Riddell Revolution Speed helmet, but the insides have been changed and his brain will now be protected by Kevlar, the same material that is used to protect police wearing bullet-proof vests.
Kevlar has been used in other devices such as in vests for quarterbacks because of its strength and light weight. But not many players have it in Revolution helmets. Why? Because, as Clark points out, the helmets don't look cool and, believe it or not, cool often trumps safety when it comes to helmets.
Why, then, doesn't the NFL -- especially in these heightened times of concussion consciousness -- mandate its players use what is considered a safer helmet? Because if they mandated a player use a certain helmet, and that player came down with a brain injury, he could sue the league for making him wear that specific helmet.
The NFL must deal with thousands of former players suing it with claims that the league did not take concussions seriously enough through the years. That has helped raise the awareness of head trauma in the NFL and prompted more safety rules to be passed and fines to be raised.
Just don't look for them to ever mandate a safer helmet.
First Published November 18, 2012 5:00 AM