Linebacker Kendrell Bell is the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, but the success of Pittsburgh's 3-4 alignment centers on another rookie, nose tackle Casey Hampton. Baltimore center Mike Flynn had one of his best games as a Raven in last week's wild-card rout of Miami, where he manhandled Zach Thomas. But if Flynn is to get to a linebacker Sunday, he'll first have to shed Hampton, who has occupied double teams.
"I think the big reason we're the No. 1 defense is because of Casey," defensive end Aaron Smith told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The defense is centered around him. If he doesn't do his job, the defense falls apart."
The Steelers led the NFL in total defense for the first time since 1990, and were No. 1 against the run, with a franchise-record 74.7 yards allowed per game. Bell, who complemented leading tackler Earl Holmes, the other inside linebacker, was a second-round choice out of Georgia. Pittsburgh used its No. 1 choice last April on Hampton, whose 315 pounds had made a mark at Texas.
"To be a rookie and have the impact he's had this year is amazing," outside linebacker Jason Gildon said of Hampton. "You can look at the success Kendrell's had; Casey hasn't had the same attention as far as media coverage, but his success has been parallel."
Hampton has been rotating with Kendrick Clancy all season. His second start came Nov. 4 against the Ravens, when he had three solo tackles and Baltimore's 26 rushing plays netted 41 yards. Last month at PSINet Stadium, the Ravens had 58 yards rushing, albeit on only 13 carries.
Quarterback Elvis Grbac and running back Terry Allen didn't play in the first Pittsburgh game, and running back Jason Brookins missed Round 2. According to Grbac, the Ravens will show the Steelers more varied offensive packages and a different attitude.
"I see guys coming off the ball really hard," Grbac said of the Ravens' offensive line. "They're well-coordinated in what they're doing. Maybe it's the focal point of being in the playoffs, the detail in their work. There's no missed assignments anymore. We go out to practice, everybody's on the same page. [Fullback] Sam Gash is really opening up some holes. It's a combination of factors, but there's a little nastiness in there, too."