The two best defenses in the NFL will share the same stage Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, and the only shame is that they can't play against each other.
Pittsburgh's venerable Steel Curtain against the Mighty Men of Baltimore - as coach John Harbaugh likes to refer to his Ravens - conjures up images of nose-breaking, will-bending, white-knuckle defense.
The anticipated epic defensive struggle will challenge the Steelers' lead in the AFC North and measure the Ravens' sudden rise in the same. But this throwback matchup is about much more than muscle and brawn.
Reserve defensive tackle Marques Douglas says the Ravens have a "thinking man's defense" and found it so the first time he joined the team in 1999.
"I learned that very early in my career, back when we had Marvin Lewis" as defensive coordinator, Douglas, an eight-year veteran, said this week. "The mental preparation was just extreme. It was nothing like I had ever seen before."
Douglas, acquired this past summer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for his third stint with the Ravens, has spent time with three other teams, none of which approached defense the way the Ravens do.
"Here, you have to know what the guy beside you is doing, you have to know the backfield formation, you have to know if the tight end is on your side, what runs can hurt you," he said.
"You have to know if the guard pulls, how to play a certain technique. Other defenses aren't teaching that. They're teaching a very one-dimensional [scheme]. When I was down in Tampa during the offseason, they didn't want us looking at the backfield at all. They wanted us to [play] gap straight-ahead defense."
That mental preparation is why the Ravens are able to remain so flexible in their schemes, why they can use so many players at multiple positions and slip them comfortably from one to another.
That's how defensive coordinator Rex Ryan wanted it.
"We take advantage of our players' intelligence," Ryan said yesterday. "It's not like we're doing accounting. It's football IQ. We'll actually teach NFL norms. ... We also teach them the system here; we don't just teach them a position. That way, you can be as flexible as we are."
Ryan teaches norms that are obvious and not so obvious. On second down after an incompletion, for instance, there is a higher rate of running than throwing. Knowing that makes a difference on the field and on the sideline.
And when Ryan assembles the defense Saturday nights, he reviews the call sheet in detail so every player understands the thinking behind the calls he'll make the next day.
"They'll understand everything about our game plan," Ryan said.
Sunday's game within the game will match Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau against Ryan. Both defenses operate out of a base 3-4 front, stress physical and aggressive play, and favor zone blitzes.
LeBeau's defense has had exceptional success this season, ranking first in the NFL in most of the important categories. Interestingly, while the Ravens rank third in scoring defense and the Steelers first, the two defenses have actually surrendered the same number of offensive touchdowns - 16.
"They've got a system they believe in," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of the Steelers. "They've got a coaching staff that has run the system for a long time. I think they understand building the defense from the inside out.
"They've always been able to come up with defensive linemen. They can take pressure off their secondary, in terms of defending the run. And they always come up with a couple of playmakers. I think those are usually the characteristics you see in a great defense."
Pittsburgh's numbers are remarkable through 13 games. The 3.9 yards per play the Steelers allow are the lowest for any defense since 1978. They are giving up 73 rushing yards a game and just 3.2 a carry. They have yet to allow 300 total yards in a game this season.
Led by linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who have combined for 26 1/2 sacks, the Steelers have overcome a sluggish offense to win their past four games. Pittsburgh leads the NFL with 45 sacks.
With the Steelers, it starts with an attitude.
"They have a tenacious attitude about themselves," Ravens center Jason Brown said. "They do bring it. You see them on film, and they're relentless. We like that. That's going to be a challenge for us, and it's only going to make us better."
Added left guard Ben Grubbs: "They have a lot of playmakers over there. Not everybody has the talent, the personnel, they have. They're able to impose their will on a lot of guys."
Which is what the Ravens' defense does. Ryan's group has allowed 77 rushing yards a game and 3.4 a carry. It hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since 2006, a span of 32 games, longest in the NFL.
The Steelers have five interceptions in their past two games. The Ravens have 12 in their past five.
"Every time we play them, whether we're down or they're down, it's always a hard-fought, physical battle," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They know what it's about; we know what it's about."
Sunday, it's about defense.
STEELERS (10-3) @RAVENS (9-4)
Sunday, 4:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2