4:15 PM ET, December 14, 2008
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD
They may have outdone themselves this season.
The NFL's top two defenses will be on the field Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Steelers will try to lock up back-to-back AFC North titles and a first-round bye in the playoffs while snapping a five-game skid in Baltimore.
Pittsburgh used its famed Steel Curtain defense -- led by four Hall of Famers -- to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s, while the Ravens held their four playoff opponents to 23 total points on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXV in 2001.
This season, the Steelers (10-3) are tops in the league in total defense (241.9 yards per game), while the Ravens (9-4) are second (253.4). Both units rank among the NFL's top 10 since 1987.
"We have a great team defense," Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "There's not one person on this defense that will say they'll take all the credit. ... In order for us to stop the run, the secondary has to be a part, and in order to stop the pass the D-line and linebackers have to be a part. And that's one thing that makes us a close group."
The Steelers have yet to give up 300 yards in a game this season, and though they came close last Sunday, they more than made up for those 289 yards allowed at the end.
Dallas held a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead at Heinz Field, but after Pittsburgh's offense rallied to tie the score with two minutes left, the defense did the rest. Townsend picked off an errant Tony Romo pass and took it into the end zone, giving the No. 1 defense in the league its second touchdown of the season and the Steelers a 20-13 victory.
"We're going to win by any means necessary," said linebacker James Harrison, who leads the league with seven forced fumbles and is third with 15 sacks. "If the defense has to score, if the special teams have to kick in a score, or if the offense has to score 50 points – whatever it takes to win."
The Ravens have scored six times on defense this season, most recently last Sunday against Washington. Ed Reed had two interceptions for the second time in three weeks and returned a fumble for a touchdown, paving the way for a 24-10 Baltimore victory.
It was the seventh time in Reed's career that he's taken an interception or fumble in for a score.
"Ed is going to always be Ed," linebacker Ray Lewis said, "but the way our defense came out and set down (Redskins running back) Clinton Portis, the guys up front did an extremely incredible freaking job."
That win helped keep the Ravens just a game back of the Steelers in the AFC North, though Baltimore is currently in position to earn one of the conference's two wild-card spots. If Pittsburgh can beat the Ravens on the road for the first time since 2002, it would not only lock up the division by virtue of a head-to-head sweep, but it would also guarantee the Steelers a first-round bye.
The aftermath of the teams' first meeting of the season added another brutally physical chapter to a rivalry that's had no shortage of colorful language on and off the field. After Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime win on Sept. 29, Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs bragged that the Ravens put a bounty on running back Rashard Mendenhall before Lewis' hard hit ended the rookie's season.
Suggs also said there was a bounty on Steelers receiver Hines Ward, though he later retracted both statements, which prompted an NFL investigation.
Suggs refused to let the war of words escalate this week -- sort of.
"I can't say anything about (Ward) this week because of the stuff that happened and because we're playing them," he said. "I'm being totally honest, I can't give you what you deserve (to hear)."
Ward, known for his punishing downfield blocks, knows there's no love lost between two teams that by season's end will have combined to win six of the seven AFC North titles since 2002.
"They're all hated," Ward said. "Anybody in purple, they're hated. It's a respect, but there's no love for them. They're not inviting me to come out and eat crab cakes with them."
Ward has scored six touchdowns in 20 games against the Ravens, but none in his last seven. He's also coming off one of the quietest games of his career, when he caught one pass for two yards in the win over Dallas.
Pittsburgh's offense hasn't been very good all season, and while a lot of that falls on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- the league's 23rd-rated passer (80.1) -- much of the blame goes to a running game that can't seem to get going.
With Willie Parker nursing a knee injury and third-down back Mewelde Moore getting more carries than he's used to, the Steelers have run for 70 yards or fewer five times. Coming into 2008, they'd failed to run for 70 yards seven times in the past four seasons.
"Down the stretch, you've got to be able to run the football and control the football against good people, close out football games, so we've got to continue to work at it," coach Mike Tomlin said.
Baltimore isn't running up and down the field, either, but it may have its most versatile offense in franchise history. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has a 95.6 passer rating since Oct. 19, leading the Ravens to a 7-1 record while throwing 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Flacco didn't throw an interception in the Steelers' overtime win over Baltimore in October, but he was stripped on a sack by Harrison that keyed Pittsburgh's 10-point comeback.
While the Steelers have struggled to run the ball, Baltimore hasn't. Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain have combined to give the Ravens the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack (144.0), though they'll be running into a defense that allows a league-low 73.0 yards on the ground.
Pittsburgh has won four in a row on the road, its last three by an average of 22.7 points.
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Pittsburgh sits atop the AFC North, but Baltimore is nipping at the Steelers' heels. After a convincing victory over Washington in Week 14, the Ravens have won seven of their past eight games. This divisional showdown features arguably the two best defenses in the league, so points will be tough to come by. In the first meeting of the season, in Pittsburgh, the Steelers edged out Baltimore 23-20. It would be a surprise if that many points were scored in the rematch, although Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco is a far superior quarterback now compared to what he was then.
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|Avg Points Allowed||13.7||15.2|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||PIT|
|Rush Yds Allowed||PIT|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 11-7|
|Sep 29, 2008||PIT 23, BAL 20|
|Dec 30, 2007||PIT 21, @BAL 27|
|Nov 5, 2007||PIT 38, BAL 7|
|Dec 24, 2006||PIT 7, BAL 31|
|Nov 26, 2006||PIT 0, @BAL 27|
|Nov 20, 2005||PIT 13, @BAL 16|
|Oct 31, 2005||PIT 20, BAL 19|
|Dec 26, 2004||PIT 20, BAL 7|
|Sep 19, 2004||PIT 13, @BAL 30|
|Dec 28, 2003||PIT 10, @BAL 13|
|Sep 7, 2003||PIT 34, BAL 15|
|Dec 29, 2002||PIT 34, BAL 31|
|Oct 27, 2002||PIT 31, @BAL 18|
|Jan 20, 2002||PIT 27, BAL 10|
|Dec 16, 2001||PIT 26, @BAL 21|
|Nov 4, 2001||PIT 10, BAL 13|