Ravens, Steelers treat defense as art form

OWINGS MILLS -- It's a shared tradition involving aggressive behavior, tooth-rattling hits and mutual contempt with virtually identical reputations and results. The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers only know one way to play defense, and that's angry. It's football defined by balled-up fists.

Guard your grill and knuckle up for Monday night's clash at Heinz Field, which features the NFL's top two defenses.

As the Ravens (4-3) and Steelers (5-2) square off in the latest installment of their AFC North rivalry, yards and points are likely to be hard to come by.

"Nothing is a secret about the way these two teams play against each other," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "We know it's going to be physical. They've got the No. 1 defense, we've got the No. 2 defense. It's going to be one of those classic games."

A nasty encounter is anticipated, one far removed from the offensive display expected during tonight's matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots.

The Steelers have allowed the fewest yards per game with a 256.9 average, and the fewest points surrendered with a 13.0 average. The Ravens rank second in total defense with a 268.0 average and are 10th in scoring defense with a 17.0 average.

Pittsburgh has given up nine offensive touchdowns, and Baltimore has allowed just one more than the Steelers.

Both defenses have highly-decorated defensive coordinators in the Ravens' Rex Ryan and the Steelers' Dick LeBeau.

"Tenacious, sound, very physical, talented," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the two high-profile defenses. "Both are well-coordinated."

Both defenses have excellent linebacking corps with Baltimore headlined by Lewis and two other Pro Bowl selections in Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, and Pittsburgh led by middle linebacker and leading tackler James Farrior.

Both feature big, active defensive lines with the Ravens led by scrappy nose guard Kelly Gregg and massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, Plus, the Ravens are ushering in the return of four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce after being out five games with a broken left wrist.

"You can't point to one guy and say 'We're going to block him,' because if you block him, the other four will kill you," said Pryce, who led the Ravens with 13 sacks a year ago. "We have all the pieces as a whole. It makes the unit stronger. I just want to make it that much harder."

The Steelers counter with hefty nose guard Casey Hampton, who has been known to rock Ravens center Mike Flynn's helmet back with his initial charge. Pittsburgh will likely be without high-intensity defensive end Aaron Smith due to a knee injury.

And the defensive backfields offer up a great debate: Who's the best safety in the NFL? The Ravens' Ed Reed or the Steelers' Troy Polamalu?

Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians actually gave the nod to Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 31 career interceptions and the ability to change a game in an instant.

"Ed's a great player," Arians told Pittsburgh reporters. "I personally think that he's the best. I love Troy, and I think that he's good, but Ed is really good."

However, the Ravens could be without starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle because of a knee injury and an undisclosed illness, respectively.

The defensive similarities extend to schemes, too.

Both teams have embraced the unpredictable 3-4 alignment, disguising coverages and blitz packages to create mass confusion.

LeBeau admittedly borrowed a few pages from Ryan's playbook this season, employing defensive end Brett Keisel in a similar manner to how Baltimore used to move around All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas and still does to a lesser extent with his replacement, Jarret Johnson.

That's why yards are likely to be hard-earned for the top two rushers in the AFC as Steelers running back Willie Parker leads the conference with 726 yards and Ravens running back Willis McGahee ranks second in the AFC and third overall in the NFL with 639 yards.

Although Parker is the only running back in the NFL with five 100-yard games this season, he was halted a year ago by Baltimore with a combined 51 rushing yards on 23 carries in two games.

Conversely, the Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 32 games for the longest current streak in the NFL.

Arians boldly vowed this week that the Steelers will successfully run the football against a defense that ranks second against the run and has only allowed two Steelers to eclipse the century mark during the teams' 14 meetings since 2000: Jerome Bettis in 2004 and Amos Zereoue in 2002.

The Ravens don't sound especially worried about Parker.

"He's not the biggest guy, but he's very willing, he's willing to run between the tackles," said Scott, whose huge hit on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still being remarked about a year later. "So when he does that you have to make him pay the price."

It could be an expensive toll for both offenses with these two nasty defenses' predilection for contact.

Not to mention a shared dislike that hasn't abated. In the past, there have been some wild melees between Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Who can forget former Ravens defensive back James Trapp stomping on former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress' helmet? Or the shouting match and threats exchanged between Lewis and former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter outside the Ravens' team bus.

"You know what type of game it's going to be," Scott said. "It's a mutual respect there, but I won't say I'm a fan. I'm not a fan of any other team, but the Baltimore Ravens.

"That's just how I was brought up. You worry about your team and forget everybody else." Except for these two defenses.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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