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D As in Dominant
December 22, 2008
Longtime defensive strong boys Pittsburgh and Baltimore met to decide the AFC North—and to settle the debate over which unit was the NFL's best this season. The answers are etched in steel
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December 22, 2008

D As In Dominant

Longtime defensive strong boys Pittsburgh and Baltimore met to decide the AFC North—and to settle the debate over which unit was the NFL's best this season. The answers are etched in steel

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Stat Category Ravens NFL Rank Steelers NFL Rank
Yards per game 280.6 1 281.3 2
Points per game 17.1 2 17.4 3
Rushing yards per game 87.1 1 92.1 2
Rushing yards per attempt 3.3 1 3.7 3
Rushes of 10+ yards 326 1 366 2
100-yard rushers 18 1 20 2
Rushing touchdowns 78 1 92 3
Passing yards per game 193.5 5 189.2 2
Passing yards per attempt 6.32 2 6.33 3
Pass plays of 25+ yards 230 11 186 2
Touchdown passes 171 3 174 6
Opponents' passer rating 69.9 2 73.8 3
Sacks 413 4 428 1
Interceptions 208 1 163 16
Years ranked in top 10 9   9  
Years ranked No. 1 1   4  

IN 50 YEARS as a player and a coach in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has conditioned himself to expect the unexpected. So after the 2006 season, when Bill Cowher retired as coach and Mike Tomlin was brought in from Minnesota as his replacement, LeBeau wasn't taking his job for granted despite a stellar reputation and the fine performance of his unit that season: No. 9 in the league in overall defense and No. 7 in fewest points allowed. � Most new coaches coming from outside want to put together their own staff, and Tomlin was a defensive backs coach tutored in the Buccaneers' Cover Two system—a scheme light years from LeBeau's heralded zone blitz. But there was no need for LeBeau to be worried about job security.

"I never gave any thought to changing," Tomlin said last Saturday night, on the eve of the Steelers' AFC North showdown with the Ravens in Baltimore. "The reason is this: I wasn't interested in taking steps backward in an effort to move forward. To make any changes would have been to do that. We're a 3--4 team, we have 3--4 personnel—arguably some of the best in the world at what they do in that scheme. It wouldn't have been prudent to go about changing that."

Less than 24 hours later at hostile M&T Bank Stadium, Tomlin's reasoning was borne out when LeBeau's top-ranked defense limited the Ravens to season lows in total yards (202), passing yards (90) and first downs (12) en route to a grinding 13--9 victory. The win gave Tomlin his second straight division title and Pittsburgh a first-round bye in the playoffs. If they win their final two games, at Tennessee and at home against Cleveland, the Steelers will have home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Sunday's battle provided everything one would expect from the NFL's top-ranked defenses, with offensive advances seemingly measured in inches rather than yards. Baltimore, which had averaged 30 points in its previous eight games, worked its way inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line three times yet never reached the end zone. The Steelers had only three drives inside their opponent's 12, finally scoring the game's only touchdown with 43 seconds to play. Even then, it took the replay official to determine that the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line on wideout Santonio Holmes's catch of Ben Roethlisberger's four-yard pass. The last-minute uncertainty didn't detract from the momentous Pittsburgh victory, its first in Baltimore since 2002.

As the Steelers walked to the locker room afterward, one member of the defense barked, "Fourteen games in a row! Fourteen games in row! There shouldn't be no debate now!" What he meant was, the 11--3 Steelers, who entered the game with the league's No. 1 defense, have held their opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense in every game this season, tying the postmerger record set by the Los Angeles Rams in 1973; and any talk that the Ravens' No. 2--ranked defense is the better unit should cease.

THE DEBATE was valid, and it's sure to resume if Baltimore secures a wild-card berth and the clubs meet again in the playoffs. As for the rest of the NFL, only Tampa Bay can argue that its defense belongs in the same discussion with Pittsburgh's and Baltimore's. Since 2000 the Steelers have never finished out of the league's top 10 in total defense, and the Ravens, like the Bucs, have done so only once (box, page 42).

Despite the hostile nature of the rivalry, there is a mutual respect between the two units, and they are more alike than players on either side care to admit. Both defenses play aggressively and pressure the quarterback; both use a base 3--4 scheme; both are built strong up the middle, from nosetackle through the inside linebackers to the safeties; and both attribute their sustained success to quality scouting, coaching and personnel. "When you get those things, you build continuity and tradition," says the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy, who as the Tampa Bay coach in 2001 hired Tomlin as an assistant. "They have similar systems, and they know how to draft for it. [ Pittsburgh] scouts say, 'O.K., [linebackers] LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison might not fit for everyone else, but for us they do.'"

The Steelers, of course, have built great defenses dating to the Steel Curtain that marked their Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, a unit stocked with such Hall of Famers as defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and cornerback Mel Blount. Those squads played a 4--3 defense, but LeBeau is all about the 3--4 zone blitz (box, page 38)—which is not to be confused with the fluid 3--4 that his counterpart Rex Ryan uses in Baltimore.

Ryan prefers to attack from every direction and out of multiple formations. At times on Sunday he had eight players within three yards of the line of scrimmage; at others he had only four. Sometimes the Ravens overload one side of the formation with four or five players, leaving what looks to be a gaping hole on the other side, but someone will slide or sprint into the opening at the snap.

The Steelers, in contrast, are more straightforward and generate their pass rush primarily from the three down linemen and two outside linebackers ( Harrison, 15 sacks; Woodley, 11 1/2). But when the time is right LeBeau will throw a changeup, as he did on Sunday. With 4:28 to play, the Ravens were at the Pittsburgh 27, facing third-and-eight but in position for a field goal that would put them up 12--6. Figuring the Baltimore blockers would focus on Harrison and Woodley, LeBeau had reserve inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons rush from the outside. Timmons's sack and strip of quarterback Joe Flacco knocked the Ravens back 14 yards and out of field goal range.

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