Steelers, Ravens raise defense to new heights
The Steelers could look into their mirror and ask which defense is the best of them all. They'd see themselves, and they also might see the Baltimore Ravens.
Two images, one and the same. The defenses of the Steelers and Ravens look alike, play alike and nearly rank alike.
The Steelers are No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed, the Ravens rank second. Each team runs a 3-4 defense that features more disguises than a Halloween parade. Each uses a roving linebacker/defensive end -- the Steelers began deploying end Brett Keisel this season the way the Ravens previously used Adalius Thomas, and the Ravens now use linebacker Jarret Johnson the way they used Thomas.
They also have two of the best safeties in the NFL, the Ravens' Ed Reed and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu.
It has the makings for an old-school defensive game Monday night in Heinz Field, the antithesis of Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots game a day earlier.
"We have two similar defenses -- we both play hard, we both hit hard, we both play physical games," said free safety Anthony Smith, fast gaining a reputation among the biggest hitters of them all on that Steelers defense.
Both defenses have some of the biggest names in the game, and the Ravens expect one of their best back for this one, Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce, who missed the past five games with a wrist injury.
The Steelers and Ravens long have had some of the best defenses in the game, and linebacker Larry Foote thinks there's a reason for that tradition of defense in both cities.
"It's a mind-set, and character guys they bring in, guys it means something to. They're still running to the ball, hustling; when the game's out of hand, you're still playing hard. When you see these two teams' defense play, you see that."
Run and play good defense are their mottos, but usually neither team enjoys much success running the ball when they meet. The game showcases the AFC's top two rushers, No. 1 Willie Parker of the Steelers with 726 yards, and No. 2 Willis McGahee of the Ravens with 639 yards.
Don't expect 100 yards from either Monday. Parker, the only back in the NFL with five 100-yard games this season, ran for a total of 51 yards on 23 tries in two games against Baltimore last season. Baltimore won both, by a combined 58-7. The Steelers' defense has not allowed a 100-yard runner against them in the past 32 games, the longest current streak in the NFL.
"We're going to have to come out and run the ball," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "That's our MO. We've got to come out and pound the ball and we're going to have to find a way to get that done."
If not, Roethlisberger must try to crack that defense by throwing, which did not work so well last season. In two games against the Ravens, he was sacked 14 times. One by linebacker Bart Scott was the hardest he has been hit, Roethlisberger said.
Scott described that hit thusly to Sports Illustrated, which ranked it third-best in the NFL last season: "I looked back and saw Ben was still down, and I'm like, YEAH! I knocked him out of the game. That's what made it better for me. I laid a man out, a man who outweighs me. And he will never forget it."
Said Roethlisberger yesterday: "You've got to have short-term memory loss."
The Steelers are capable of such hits as well, and they think they have the better defense, slightly.
"I don't think they're that far behind us," Keisel said. "They do a lot of the same things, have a lot of guys moving around, trying to disrupt the offense, bringing a lot of crazy blitzes -- similar things to what we do."
And they have Ray Lewis smack in the middle of it again. Lewis is not the linebacker he was three or four years ago, and some believe he makes Pro Bowls on reputation alone.
Foote is not among them.
"They're still the No. 2 defense in the league, and he's still playing, running and he loves the game.
"He brought a lot of glamor to the position. He has a lot of hustle going on, a lot of enthusiasm, the way he talks, he's a great player."
And for those who love defense, it should be a great game.
First Published November 1, 2007 12:07 am