Few have experienced the Ravens-Steelers rivalry quite like Rod Woodson.
In the final of his 10 excellent seasons in Pittsburgh, he played against the Ravens in their inaugural season at Memorial Stadium. After a one-year stop with the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, he joined the Ravens for four years, winning an elusive Super Bowl championship at the end of the 2000 season.
Woodson, now 57 and living in Las Vegas, knows what it means when the Ravens and Steelers play. He understands what the franchises mean to their respective cities. And he’s a sharp football mind. He played 17 NFL seasons, was Defensive Player of the Year in 1993, still holds the league record for interceptions returned for a touchdown (12) nearly 20 years after he retired, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009 in his first year of eligibility.
This year, after calling games on national radio broadcasts, Woodson has brought his football insights to local audiences as the radio analyst for Ravens games, joining play-by-play man Gerry Sandusky on the team’s official broadcasts on 98 Rock and WBAL 1090.
Ahead of Sunday night’s game, The Baltimore Banner caught up with Woodson to talk about the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, Lamar Jackson’s injury (Woodson has some first-hand experience with knee ligament injuries), and his thoughts on the team’s play while Jackson has been sidelined.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Baltimore Banner: When you think of the Ravens-Steelers series, what comes to your mind?
Rod Woodson: They’re so similar in the way they run their franchises, talking about how ownership and front-office personnel all kind of trickle down to the players and how they play. Steve Bisciotti is a great individual and the Rooney family is a great family. The Rooneys have been established in Pittsburgh for such a long time and Steve Bisciotti has now established himself in Baltimore for quite a while.
The way they run their teams: They both kind of stay out of it; then they pick the best coaches. Chuck Noll wasn’t the sexiest hire way back in the day. Bill Cowher wasn’t the sexiest hire, and Mike Tomlin wasn’t. John Harbaugh wasn’t either. But when you think bigger picture, you’re thinking about individuals who can lead men. That’s what they do, and they don’t go through a lot of coaches, which is kind of refreshing. The owners of both teams don’t react to what the fans say. They wanted Mike Tomlin’s head for several years. They wanted John Harbaugh’s head a couple times here and there. But the team said we’ll stick with them, and they persevered.
When you get on the field of play, they’re very similar too. Run-first offense, run-stopping defense, and a defense that likes to get after quarterbacks. They’re both similar in what they like to do. I think that’s why the games are always really close.
BB: What’s your headline take on this Ravens team as of late?
RW: It’s been a reversal of fortunes, so to speak. The offense started off red-hot at the start of the year and we were scratching our heads about what the defense was going to be. And now it’s a red-hot defense and we’re kind of scratching our heads about what the offense is going to be and look like, even when Lamar comes back.
The defense has played so well. Since they got Roquan Smith from Chicago, the way they’ve played and how fast they’ve played, as a unit, has been refreshing. That’s the old Ravens defense. That’s the main reason they’re still winning these games where they’re only kicking field goals for the most part.
BB: What impact has Roquan Smith had on the defense overall?
RW: I can say that he’s made Patrick Queen a better player. And I don’t know what the coaches have been talking to Patrick about in his first several years, but he was still hesitating for whatever reason. He was still doubting himself inside of plays at times. You could see it, and he’d be a step behind. Well, Smith comes in, says something, and then shows him how to do it fast, and just go. You do all your film study during the week for a reason, so you don’t doubt yourself on game day. He’s just playing so much faster than the previous years, and they’re arguably the best duo of linebackers in the NFL right now.
This whole defense has played so much better and faster because of that group. The defensive line has been good all year long. And when Smith comes over and helps Patrick, they both have just played faster as a unit, which definitely helps the secondary, because if you play faster up front, the secondary can slow down and they don’t have to feel rushed then get some big pass plays hit behind them.
BB: Lamar Jackson isn’t going to play this week. Obviously, people want to see him on the field. Should fans be concerned about this knee injury — a reported sprained PCL — lingering on at this point?
RW: No, they were saying maybe three to four or five weeks. You got to hope Buffalo beats Cincy, and the Ravens can beat the Steelers, and they don’t have to worry about that last game against the Bengals. That’s what you hope for. That’s the best-case scenario.
I don’t think John would play Lamar this week no matter what. I think they can beat the Steelers without Lamar because the Steelers offense isn’t going to score a lot of points. They haven’t proven it, so why jeopardize putting Lamar in there. Now, if he was healthy for the following week against Cincy – 100% healthy, not 90% – then I think you let Lamar play.
BB: You famously played in a Super Bowl only five months after tearing your ACL in the first game of the season. You also played a game with a sprained MCL. What do you know about a sprained PCL that Lamar has?
RW: The PCL is the front of the knee. I knew a player – Greg Lloyd didn’t even have a PCL. That threw me off. How do you play football? But it was stable.
With the ligaments, they’re going to heal on their own in their time. Even with all the rehab Lamar is doing, it doesn’t make it go faster. It just naturally heals inside your knee.
The biggest thing is does Lamar trust the knee? Can he be Lamar once he steps back on the field? If he can’t do exactly what you want to see, and what he naturally does, then you do hold him back. But if he shows in practice or in workouts that he’s moving around and flying around, then you let him come back when he’s at that point.
BB: I’ve heard you say on the radio the Ravens rushing attack is like a high school-like inverted wishbone offense. How do you describe it?
RW: It is an inverted wishbone. Wishbone used to be two backs behind one. Sometimes the Ravens do the inverted with two backs up, or the quarterback is in the pistol and the running back is behind the quarterback. It’s really a speed option game, with the zone reads, when the quarterback is reading the line of scrimmage, and the RPOs [run-pass options] which came in a little bit later after the zone reads and speed options. They ran the speed option a couple times a couple weeks ago, which was a new wrinkle to what they normally do.
But I’ve said I would run the ball 65 times in a game and 300 yards weekly if opposing defenses can’t stop them. I would make them stop this offense. And then once they did crowd the line of scrimmage – kind of like what they saw at the beginning of the year and Lamar was throwing down the field – that’s when you get your one-on-one matchups. It’s a lot easier for a quarterback to see press coverage and know how to throw that ball than off coverage and try to realize, are they in zone? Are they in man? When corners come up and press, that’s a man look. It’s a lot easier for a quarterback to drop back seven steps and throw the ball deep.
BB: In the Cleveland game, the Ravens got away from the run a little early. And the Ravens have had struggles in the red zone, too. You pair those things together and you would think, “Just keep running it” through the red zone.
RW: In the red zone, you got to be little bit more creative, but they would run the ball all the way down to the 14-yard line and then have three straight passes. To me, just because you got down there with the run doesn’t mean you should change it up, if they can’t stop it. You’re getting 5 1/2 yards per carry. That’s a pretty good average. I would stick to that.
BB: You’re involved with the XFL, coaching the Las Vegas Vipers too. How is that going?
RW: We start in two weeks. We’re excited. We’ll be down in the Dallas area, which will kind of be the hub [for the league], and we’ll come back to Vegas and play our games here. The great thing is for the players who don’t get to make it in the NFL to have another platform to keep showing their wares and maybe keep getting better where they do get an opportunity to come back and play for an NFL team.
Taylor Heinicke, the Washington Commanders quarterback, was an XFL guy. P.J. Walker, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, was. There’s been quite a few to at least have opportunities to play in the NFL.
BB: Any other thoughts heading into the game Sunday?
RW: I just know it’s going to be a close game. It’s probably going to come down to who has the ball last or who makes the opposing offense punt more than two or three times. Something like that is going to happen. It’s very rare that the game is decided by more than two scores. Out of the last 21 games, I think there’s been one over two scores. They’re all pretty close.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.