When the NFL schedule came out, Hines Ward smiled when he saw it would start off with a bang for the Steelers, opening against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I can see why the league scheduled Baltimore-Pittsburgh to kick off the 2011 season," said Ward. "That's all the players have been talking about. The preseason is good to develop a team, but for the veteran guys, all we do is concentrate on Baltimore."
It's impossible for the players not to have such a strong focus on Baltimore, a team they have had some epic battles with through the years for the AFC North title.*
"You look at the scores the last few games and it's been a field goal or last drive games, a game of inches," said safety Ryan Clark. "We understand that, especially defensively, that you can't give up big plays in this game. If you give up a big play, that can be the difference in the score.
"We try to come in very focused mentally and physically and just go out and enjoy it. You relish the opportunity to play them the first game. There is no time for lapses. We don't have time to work our way into it, it's going to be a big game from the first minute."
The Steelers defeated the Ravens 13-10 in Baltimore last year, but lost to them at home 17-14. The Steelers and Ravens finished the regular season with identical 12-4 records, but the Steelers took the AFC North title with a 5-1 division record. The two teams met in the post-season, with the Steelers coming out on top, 31-24.
"It's such an important game because most of the time the winner of this series advances in the playoffs," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "It will be a great test to see where each team is. To see where offense, defense and special teams are. We have no time to relax.
"You know it's going to be a physical game and you have to buckle down or you are going to look bad out there. It's one of those games that always come down to the end and hopefully we will come out on top."
In Baltimore this week is known as "Steelers Week," while in Pittsburgh it's "Ravens Week." And what does that mean?
"It's just pure hatred," said Ward. "We respect each other but there is no love lost. There is no going out and grabbing a bite to eat after the game, but you respect each other."
Clark had a similar view to Ravens Week, but took a little bit of a softer approach.
"I am trying to get into heaven so we aren't going to use hatred," laughed Clark. "It is two very like minded teams, coached hard, that physical football. We both take a very physical approach to the game. Both teams have great defensive leaders, Ray Lewis and James Farrior. It's a lot of similarities between the teams. When you play someone a lot, we play them twice every season and lately three times. To have a team you see, you get comfortable and familiar with the people. It's more times for them to hit you, more times for them to be nasty to you.
"We have developed a nice 'friendship' over the years."
That 'friendship' will likely translate into a physical battle, and Ward has some advice for any of his new Steelers teammates playing in their first Steelers-Ravens game.
"Hit anything with purple and black on," said Ward. "Just hit it. Regardless of where you are on the field, if the whistle hasn't blown hit anything purple and black because that's what this game is all about."