Steelers have grown since September loss to Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- Simultaneously, this is and isn't the same Pittsburgh Steelers defense that the Baltimore Ravens bullied three months ago.<br><br> Those Steelers were manhandled by the Ravens' smash-mouth running game, allowing 172 rushing yards in a 30-13 loss in the second week of the season.<br><br> And these Steelers (13-1) feature the top-ranked overall defense and run defense in the NFL, acting as the backbone of the newly crowned AFC North champions.

Those September Steelers allowed the Ravens to punctuate their lopsided victory with a 90-yard drive on 11 plays for a score on a time-consuming opening drive.

Undefeated since then in a dozen starts under rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following an arm injury to Tommy Maddox caused by cornerback Gary Baxter, the Steelers have generated 38 sacks and 126 hits or pressures on the quarterback.

Blitzburgh is in full effect, a ferocious reality once again under old-guard defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau heading into Sunday's game against Baltimore (8-6) at Heinz Field.

The twist is they haven't done much differently in terms of scheme.It's just an aggressive approach steeped in fundamentals.

"They haven't changed what they're doing, they just have a lot more confidence," Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "That's good for us. It's not, 'Oh, gee, 10 weeks ago, they were doing this and now they're doing this.'

"They're going to run the same packages, same fronts, same coverages, same dogs and blitzes and we'll pull some things out of the last time we played. They're doing everything with a lot more confidence, and they're a lot more dangerous."

Inside linebacker James Farrior has emerged as a particularly major threat. Farrior is a swift, instinctive enforcer who has thrived this season.

He leads Pittsburgh with 110 tackles, and is versatile enough to be more than a mere run-stuffer. He has four sacks and four interceptions and has scored a touchdown despite heavy run-support responsibilities in the Steelers' 3-4 base defense.

"He's all over the field," Cavanaugh said. "You can tell he studies the heck out of an offense. He gets a good feel for formations, tendencies, motion and personnel groups.

"He's a downhill reactor. They use him quite a bit on pressures. He can run sideline to sideline. He can jump through gaps. He can shed blocks. He's a good tackler, and he's good in pass coverage."

In Cavanaugh's estimation, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau employs blitz packages 35 to 40 percent of the time, among the highest percentile in the league.
A veteran assistant who was a head coach in Cincinnati, LeBeau, 67 is considered the architect of the zone blitz.

"He's been doing this for quite a while, he's sound and he believes in his scheme," Cavanaugh said. "It's tempting to say they do a lot of things, but they don't. You've got to be on your toes. We win these games not by outscheming them, but by outexecuting them."

The Steelers will be shorthanded Sunday.

They don't have Pro Bowl nose guard Casey Hampton, but Chris Hoke has filled in adeptly. Linebackers Kendrell Bell and Clark Haggans are out, and former Baltimore castoff James Harrison will start. Cornerback Chad Scott is working his way back and might play, but Willie Williams is liable to start.

Pittsburgh allowed 278 yards in a win over the New York Giants last week, though, and the defense hasn't posted a sack in two games.They have also surrendered three touchdowns in their last four red-zone situations.

Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning managed to connect on five pass plays of 15 yards or more, and was much more accurate than his zero quarterback rating game two weeks ago in Baltimore. Perhaps the extended toll of playing without so many starters is wearing Pittsburgh down.

"Last week, we did not play our best game defensively," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said Monday. "These are very correctable things."

Strong safety Troy Polamalu has energized the defense with his reckless abandon as an extra defender in the box and his speed when the football is in the air. Polamalu has registered 109 tackles and five interceptions for the fourth-ranked pass defense in the NFL.

"By design, they want him as close to the box as possible to help out in run support and he's got the athletic ability to bail out and get back if he gets a pass key," Cavanaugh said. "He covers a lot of ground. Ideally, he's the big hitter that they want up in the box."

Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter and defensive end Aaron Smith lead Pittsburgh with seven sacks apiece, and are both quick, powerful pass rushers. Cornerback DeShea Townsend even has four sacks to go with his four interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Ravens' offensive line is coming off a rough outing in a 20-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden couldn't keep up with the breakneck pace of defensive end Dwight Freeney, who sacked quarterback Kyle Boller twice to pad his league-high total of 15 sacks.

"The disappointing thing is Indianapolis was getting pressure only rushing four people, we've got to do better than that, we've got to be more solid up front with our five linemen," Cavanaugh said. "If we need to chip, we'll chip. By design, we wanted to leave J.O. out there and let him handle Freeney.

"I'm not going to downgrade J.O.'s play as much as I'm going to give Freeney credit. He's a demon out there. He attacks the quarterback. I think J.O. will learn from it."

The coaching staff considers the way Ogden was exposed in pass protection to be an aberration, not the beginning of a troubling trend contributed to by a nagging hamstring injury.

"I don't think he would use the injury as an excuse, he just got beat a couple of times," Cavanaugh said. "He also mauled him a couple of times, too. J.O. will be fine. He's the least of our worries."

As well as a being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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