All Talked Out

To the most physical team goes the spoils today in Baltimore, where the Steelers and Ravens open the 2011 season with a most attractive and fierce matchup.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won 20 division titles since the NFL merged in 1970, and that's more than any other team in that time.

It's early, but in what should be a two-team race in the AFC North, a win at Baltimore will go a long way to stamping No. 21 in the Steelers' ledger.

That is, if they survive, physically, in what's been the league's most intense rivalry.

"It's the physicality of the game, the hits in the game, and the fact that if a defense makes a play, it could win a game," said Ravens pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. "With other teams in other games, the defense can score twice and that team can still end up losing. If the defense makes a big play in our game, the outcome is a direct result of it. Everything is so defense-oriented."

The Steelers and Ravens have the longest and second-longest streaks of premium defense in the NFL. The Steelers have finished in the top 10 in defense a league-best 11 consecutive seasons. The Ravens are next with eight-straight top-10 finishes.

But are the defenses still in charge? The Steelers, for instance, have nine starters age 30 and older and are by far the league's oldest defense. Not that it seems to matter to anyone.

"Keep talking about how old they are," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the media. "I appreciate that. You make my job easy."

"The only thing old is wine," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, "and they say wine gets better with age. So, I tell you, if you can do it, do it. And that's one defense that's been doing it for a long time."

The Steelers' defense returns intact from last season, but it will play together for the first time this summer against the Ravens. Cornerback Bryant McFadden missed all of the preseason with a hamstring injury and his partner Ike Taylor missed most of the preseason with a broken thumb. Both will play today, as will Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, who've been in and out of the lineup as they recovered from old injuries.

They'll go up against a Ravens offense that's gotten rid of two old-but-talented receivers in Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. What the Ravens will miss in clutch play they hope to replace with youth and speed.

"Ed (Dickson) had a heck of a camp. Dennis Pitta I would put in the same category," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of his second-year tight ends. "Of course Lee Evans and Torrey Smith give us down-field threats. We probably haven't had that kind of speed around here since I have been here in terms of having a down-field threat both at the wide receiver and tight end positions."

Defensively, the Ravens have made changes in their secondary. Replacing playoff starters Chris Carr and Josh Wilson are Cary Williams and either Domonique Foxworth or first-round draft pick Jimmy Smith. Tom Zbikowski replaced Dawan Landry at strong safety. They'll be looking to stop a Steelers passing attack that has complemented Hines Ward with speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Newcomer Jerricho Cotchery is doubtful with a hamstring injury.

"The more speed you can put out there the more explosive you can be," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "And that opens up your running game."

Arians called running back Rashard Mendenhall his "lead dog, and everybody else feeds off him."

That's fine with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's come to truly understand the physical style of defense in this rivalry.

"We've got to – we've GOT to – establish the run early," Roethlisberger said. "We have to be successful with it. We can't just drop back and pass every play because I'll get another broken nose, and that's not fun."


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