One-two punch

NFL's best defenses are looking to land knockout blows

here's the tale of the tape

January 18, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

PITTSBURGH - It was one month ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers walked off the field of M&T Bank Stadium with a 13-9 win and a voice rose from the crowd of players:

"We're still the No. 1 defense! We showed you boys how to play defense!"

Today, in the AFC championship game, those appear to be fighting words.

The Steelers, who rank No. 1 in defense, are the NFL's best at stopping teams from moving the ball. The Ravens, who rank second, are the best at taking it away.

If the two heated rivals agree on anything - and the list is short - it's that the best defense will advance to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

"They certainly deserve their rankings and all that," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "But right now, it comes down to one game. So if we're the best defense, we'll win."

This marks only the second time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that the league's top two defenses will meet in a conference title game. The other was the 1978 NFC championship game (Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams).

The defenses of the Ravens and the Steelers are close to being mirror images of each other, from statistics to schemes. They both play unpredictable 3-4 fronts (three linemen and four linebackers). Their foundation is crushing the other team's running attack and quarterback.

By the end of the regular season, just 23.9 yards per game separated Pittsburgh's top-rated defense (237.2) and the Ravens' second-rated unit (261.1).

"I respect their defense," Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "We are similar. If you watch them play and you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play, I feel that's how teams ... should play defense."

Ravens defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said the players make his team's defense special.

"We have one of everything," Pryce said. "We have the best middle linebacker in the game. We've got a great outside rusher and a great inside rusher. We have a safety that's crazy. We have [a] tough guy. We have a run stopper. We have a lockdown corner and a hitting corner. Everybody has an identity, and when you put those pieces together, you have a good defense."

Asked what makes the Steelers' defense unique, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin pointed to the entire unit instead of individual players.

"I'd probably say the level of consistency," Tomlin said. "It's not necessarily your ceiling that defines you as a player, as a unit, as a football team. It's your floor. What I mean by that is we're very consistent week in and week out with how we play, very little ups and downs. To me, that's as important as what you're capable of doing."

Two of the biggest lows for the Ravens' defense this season have come against the Steelers.

In their first meeting, third-string running back Mewelde Moore caught a 24-yard pass against the Ravens to set up a 46-yard field goal in overtime.

In the second one, Santonio Holmes' controversial 4-yard touchdown reception with 43 seconds left capped a game-winning, 92-yard drive.

The Ravens' defense knows that if it can't hold up at the end this time, its season could be over.

"When you look at it, the Steelers got the No. 1-rated defense, and I think we are pretty close to them," Ryan said. "So, we're expecting to hold up our end. Whatever that takes, that's what we are going to give up - one point less than we get."

A comparison of the Ravens' and Steelers' defenses position by position:

Left defensive end

Ravens' Justin Bannan vs. Steelers' Aaron Smith. Bannan has been a capable fill-in for the injured Kelly Gregg and has become the Ravens' unsung hero of the defensive line. Smith is more versatile because he is stout against the run and gets a push inside as a pass rusher. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS

Nose tackle

Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Steelers' Casey Hampton. At 325 pounds, Hampton is one of the NFL's top nose tackles, a space eater who doesn't budge against double teams. But few tackles have Ngata's size and agility. He has become the Ravens' most dominating inside lineman since Sam Adams. Other than the Tennessee Titans' Albert Haynesworth, no tackle has been as dominant as Ngata. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS

Right defensive end

Ravens' Trevor Pryce vs. Steelers' Brett Keisel. Pryce has quietly put together an impressive season. He is tremendous at penetrating inside on passing downs. Keisel is dependable and plays with a high motor. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS

Left outside linebacker

Ravens' Jarret Johnson vs. Steelers' LaMarr Woodley. In his second season, Woodley has emerged as a force, producing 11 1/2 sacks. Johnson is a blue-collar player who continually outworks his opponents. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS

Left inside linebacker

Ravens' Ray Lewis vs. Steelers' James Farrior. Some NFL insiders might say this is even. But Lewis has returned to form, taking running backs out of games (remember Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall?) and keeping this team focused with his leadership. Farrior is also a team leader but not on the same level as Lewis. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS

Right inside linebacker

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