It’s one of the oldest tricks in the motivational playbook.
Want you give your team some incentive? Simply recite the “They don’t respect us” theme.
It’s exactly what Ryan Clark is doing as the Steelers (5-8), all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, take on the Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) Sunday at Heinz Field. The Bengals can lock up the AFC North with a win and a Ravens loss, while a Steelers win would mean only that they still have a chance to avoid their first losing season in 10 years.
Clark believes these Bengals, with a cast largely assembled in the last few seasons, don’t really respect or worry the Steelers all that much.
Maybe it’s because the Bengals – headed to the playoffs for a third consecutive season – have reversed a trend that saw them dominated by the Steelers for a decade.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cincinnati,” Clark said on a conference call with Cincinnati reporters. “I don’t think they necessarily understand the history, or know the history, nor care about it.”
The Bengals effectively put the Steelers out of the playoffs by winning in Pittsburgh last December, then beat them 20-10 in a Monday night game the second week of this season.
Before that, the Steelers won 20 of 26 against Cincinnati from 2000-2012, including season series sweeps in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
“Those guys play hard,” Clark said of the Bengals. “They talk and, for me, that’s exciting. It’s always good to play against good players who feel like they’re better than you. It makes for a good game for both teams.”
There’s another angle to the Sunday night game that would have been much bigger before the Steelers effectively slid out of the playoff race: The return of James Harrison to Pittsburgh. The five-time Pro Bowl linebacker left the Steelers after last season because the two sides couldn’t agree to a reworking of his contract.
“Hopefully it (the welcome is) a good one. James did a lot of great things here,” Clark said on the conference call. “A lot of those No. 1 defenses were in large part to the efforts of James Harrison. Hopefully they cheer him. Mike Wallace got booed last week but his situation was a lot different than James’s situation. So hopefully they give him the reception he deserves.”
When the Steelers were in Cincinnati in September, Harrison played only 14 snaps. But he’s now being used in a variety of ways in the Bengals’ defense – even as a tackle, at times – and he played 52 snaps last week.
Clark isn’t surprised the Bengals picked up Harrison, even though, at 35, he is past his prime and isn’t the dominant playmaker he was when he was chosen as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Do the Steelers miss Harrison in the locker room?
“I mean, you’ve tried to talk to him. You know it’s tough to get a conversation out of James,” Clark said on the conference call. “(But) the things you learn from James, you learn by the way he works. To watch a guy in the weight room who works as hard as he does in season and out of season. To watch a guy that when he practices, he practices with a weight vest. He goes hard every play. He runs to the ball every play. He works on his rush moves every play. And this is even after he was named league defensive MVP.
“When you see a person who’s accomplished what he’s accomplished and made the money he’s already made and to still continue to work the way he’s worked? That is contagious. And it’s not only contagious, it’s at least setting an example of what it takes to be a great football player. James did all those things while he was here.”
It is obvious that Ryan Clark respects James Harrison. Even if he believes the Bengals of today don’t have all that much respect for the Steelers of yesterday — James Harrison aside.