10 best receiver-defensive back rivalries in NFL history

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Jan 15, 2011; Pittsburgh , PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward (86) and Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed (20) argue during the third quarter of the 2011 AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2022 season wrapped up, here’s a look at ten of the best rivalries between wide receivers and defensive backs in NFL history.

As iron sharpens iron, so wide receivers and defensive backs sharpen one another. 

The original Proverbs verse isn’t specific to football, but the notion is the same. In mirroring each other, NFL wide receivers and defensive backs will always push their opponents to the limit. Through that, some of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries are born.

Sometimes players push against their physical limitations, such as a 5-foot-9 Pat Fischer when he lined up against a 6-foot-8 Harold Carmichael. Others approach the game with grace, considering it an honor to battle against a Hall of Fame talent. That was the sentiment in Peanut Tillman’s heartfelt retirement address given to Calvin Johnson, to which Johnson responded positively.

Other rivalries are rooted in revenge, with players retaliating against perceived dirty hits with clotheslines and snatched chains. Rivalrous tensions can fade with time, as with Ed Reed and Hines Ward, while others remain bitter to the end.

Choosing the 10 best rivalries between receivers and defensive backs is a subjective exercise for each fan of the game, but the following list was centered around certain criteria. There was an effort to include rivalries across decades, although there’s a recency bias that favors the 2010s. There was also an effort to include a diversity of rivalries, from respectful divisional opponents to trash-talking players with clear disdain for one another.

There were many worthwhile entries left off of this list, but in an effort to include a spectrum of football feuds, here are 10 of the best rivalries between NFL wide receivers and defensive backs.

The10 best receiver-defensive back rivalries in NFL history:

Honorable Mention: Ed Reed vs. Hines Ward

In the 2000s, the Pittsburgh Steelers were known for keeping football traditions alive, namely by continuing to play a hard-nosed style that had been phased out by recent NFL rules. Defenders like Troy Polamalu embodied the Steelers’ historic force, but so did wide receiver Hines Ward.

Ward is still regarded as one of the game’s greatest blockers at his position, but players on the other end of those blocks don’t remember his skills as fondly. Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed remembers Ward as a “dirty player” who negatively influenced league rules with his style of play.

“I don’t have to tell you Hines Ward was a dirty player,” Reed told The Dan Patrick Show via Steelers Depot. “There was a rule named after him. I’m not harping on it, I’m not bitter about it, it is what it is. Even though he was dirty towards me, I never went back at him. As much as I could have, I never did.”

Reed and Ward went back and forth at a time when the Steelers and Ravens led the AFC with their brutality, their individual battles representing a brutal intradivisional one. Bart Scott quipped back at Ward after the receiver targeted Scott and Reed in 2007, promising that when the two teams met again, he would “find him [Ward] and make sure I take the most violent shot I can take.” While Reed vs. Ward deserves mentioning, it was still relatively quiet — as Reed said, he never went back at him.

If he had, then another entry would have been bumped off this list, because there’s always room for the greatest free safety of all time taking on a Steelers legend.

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